RS: Are “Electable” Candidates Actually Electable? Part II: Swing State Electability
Is “electability” a meaningless term? It is certainly an overused one, and overused words tend to lose their meaning even when they have something to tell us. In Part I, I looked at “electability” candidates in past Republican presidential primaries. But if we look at recent presidential, Senate and Governor’s races, we can get a better fix on what kinds of candidates win and lose in the 17 states that represent the outer limits of “swing states.” A lot of things matter in contested elections, notably the national political environment. But like it or not, good candidates is one of the things that matter. They may be conservatives or they may be moderates, and in a few cases in blue states they may even be liberal Republicans, but the answer for conservatives is not to ignore electability entirely but to develop and support conservative candidates who are winners.
One way we can do that is by running candidates with proven experience, as they tend to be less likely to make the mistakes that kill inexperienced candidates. As I noted in Part I, it is mostly a myth that the GOP has repeatedly nominated moderate losers in presidential contests because voters somehow got talked into thinking their opponents were too conservative; it has more typically been the case that we have nominated moderates because conservative opposition was divided or marginalized in the absence of a good conservative alternative, and our contested races have often been between two relatively moderate Republicans. That’s what’s so unusual about 2016, in which the voting begins with two viable and talented conservatives in the race (Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio) and real questions about the viability of any of the moderate (Christie, Kasich) and/or establishment (Jeb) candidates.
To complete the picture of electability, let’s look at the statewide races going back a decade, to 2006, the start of the current post-Bush-coalition political era, ranking statewide winners and losers by their percentage of the vote.
As a reminder, you can follow me on Twitter @baseballcrank or bookmark these links to catch up on my latest work:
at The Federalist
and now at National Review
Latest since my last post here:
RS: Eight Takeaways From Iowa As New Hampshire Looms
NRO: The Iowa Caucus Expectations Game: What Do the Republican Candidates Need?
RS: BREAKING: Projected Winners: Cruz & Hillary
RS: Tim Scott to Endorse Marco Rubio
RS: Media: On Today’s Glenn Beck Program
RS: Iowa Establishment Quislings Backing Trump For 30 Pieces of Ethanol?
RS: Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse Responded To Donald Trump and It Was PERFECT
RS: Michael Reagan to Donald Trump: You’re No Ronald Reagan
NRO: Last Night’s Debate Underlines Why Congress Is a Problem for the ‘Establishment’ Republicans
RS: Are “Electable” Candidates Actually Electable? Part I: Presidential Primaries 1948-2012
RS: Where Will The “Republican Regular” Voters Go?
RS: The Case For Marco Rubio Part II: The Salesman
RS: New Hampshire Poll: Hillary Up 17 With Women, Bernie Up 42 With Men
RS: GOP Big Money Goes After Marco Rubio
RS: ARG Polls Love John Kasich When Nobody Else Does
RS: Dear Ted Cruz, Donald Trump & Jeb Bush: Stop Trying To Extort GOP Voters Instead of Persuading Them
One of the siren songs raised in favor of moderate and establishment-backed candidates every primary election season is that they are “electable” and their opponents are not. Sometimes, this is frankly code for “not like those conservatives.” But if the idea that conservatives are unelectable is a fallacy, so too is the reflexive assumption that any candidate described as “electable” is actually the opposite, or is not any sort of conservative. History reminds us that good candidates win and bad ones lose, and while ideology can matter more or less depending where and when the election is held, neither conservatives nor moderates have any monopoly on winning elections. And if you look at the history of failed GOP “electability” candidates, you will find that they were usually moderates who faced significantly weaker and/or non-conservative opponents.
Let’s take a two-part walk through the history of electability arguments, starting with a review of the GOP primaries from 1948 to 2012. In the second part, I’ll look at statewide swing-state races over the past decade to consider what kinds of Republican candidates actually do win contested elections.
RS: ARG Polls Love John Kasich When Nobody Else Does
There are many rules of thumb in evaluating polls, especially in the volatile context of a primary. We usually caution people to look at polling averages rather than individual polls for a variety of reasons, not least the fact that some pollsters may have biases (even if unintentional) or may consistently produce outliers. Sometimes, of course, one pollster that sees the world differently from everyone else is right, so being way off the averages probably means the pollster is wrong, but it doesn’t always.
So it is right now with American Research Group (ARG) in the New Hampshire Republican race. The RCP poll average right now has Ohio Governor John Kasich second in New Hampshire, far behind Donald Trump at 31 but with 13.3% to 11.5 for Marco Rubio, 11.3 for Ted Cruz, and 8.3 each for Chris Christie and Jeb Bush.
But the polling averages are heavily influenced by the lastest poll from ARG, which has Trump 27, Kasich 20, and Rubio 10 with everyone else in single digits. If we look at the Huffpost Pollster average, we can see what the averages look like with different pollsters in and out of the average:
RS: PPP Polls Shows Why Issue Polling Is So Unreliable
One of the favorite shticks of Democrat pollster Public Policy Polling (PPP) is to ask questions designed to make Republican voters look bad. This kind of “troll polling” flatters all the usual sorts of people who love to laugh at what yokels the GOP’s supporters are, and as yet no Republican-leaning pollster has gotten into the regular business of giving Democrats a taste of the same medicine. If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s not to trust individual polls that can’t be checked against a polling average, but by definition these are all one-off polls. But there’s a deeper issue here that the latest PPP trolling question illustrates: that average Americans are far too trusting of pollsters, and the ability of pollsters to exploit that trust shows why polling on individual issues is untrustworthy.
Here’s the latest poll question that has PPP’s followers floating on a cloud of smug this morning:
RS: The Myth of “4 Million Conservative Voters Stayed Home in 2012”
I have frequently criticized liberal and Democratic commentators for relying on the Static Electorate Fallacy, the idea that the 2016 electorate and results will not stray far from the demographic, geographic and ideological contours of 2012, despite longstanding American electoral history showing that elections following the re-election of an incumbent have always featured shifts in the map to the detriment of the party in power. Candidates make their own turnout, and removing a successfully re-elected incumbent always puts more voters and potential voters up for grabs.
But conservative and Republican commentators need to avoid believing our own comforting myths, and one of those has managed remarkable durability even though it should have gone away within a month of the 2012 elections: that something like 4 million usually reliable conservative voters – voters who showed up at the polls even in the down year of 2008 to support John McCain – stayed home in 2012 because Mitt Romney was too moderate. This theory keeps getting offered as proof that all the GOP needs to do is nominate a real conservative and this cavalry, 4 million strong, will come charging over the hilltop and save the day. In fact, poor a candidate as he was, Romney actually got more votes than McCain did; the belief that he got less is based entirely on incomplete numbers reported in the first 24-48 hours after Election Day, before all the votes had finally been counted.
I’ve been neglecting this blog rather badly for altogether too long – the archives say I haven’t posted here since September 21, 2014. I’ve been busy in the interim on Twitter, of course, and publishing elsewhere. I probably need to post archived versions of some of those posts here. For now: links.
I will start with The Weekly Standard, where I have this issue’s cover story, just posted today: Giving Thomas His Due, on Justice Thomas’ opinions over the past year and what they tell us about his philosophy. [ETA: Link to the archived original now available here, the print version here, and the live version at the Washington Examiner here]
Then there’s The Federalist, where I tend to post my longer essays these days. I ran a lengthy 5-part essay prior to the Obergefell decision, “Can Gays And Christians Coexist In America?”. Part I looked at the Biblical reasons why Christians believe in one-man-one-woman-for-life marriage. Part II looked at the history of Catholicism and other Biblical Christianity in the battles over slavery and Jim Crow. Part III looked at the Christian concept of scandal and the battle between liberty-based and equality-based views of “LGBT rights.” Part IV looked at the legal arguments over the rational basis for distinguishing between opposite-sex and same-sex marriage. And Part V traced possible ways forward for coexistence post-Obergefell, which admittedly are not looking especially promising at the moment.
The First Principle Of U.S. Foreign Policy looked at various approaches to our foreign policy.
Others from the fall, including some of my poll-analysis posts:
The Ferguson Riots Are Nothing Like The Original Tea Party Protests
Polling Postmortem: The Best And Worst Senate Polls Of 2014 (I keep meaning to run the companion piece on the Governors races before 2016 polling heats up).
Do Democrats Always Win Close Statewide Elections? (covers the 1998-2013 elections; I should update this with 2014 results).
Listening To President Obama’s Ebola Advice Could Get People Killed
And of course, if you missed it last time, my essay on how History Is Not On The Democrats’ Side In 2016 is still an important read on the coming election, undoubtedly the most significant piece I will write on the 2016 election.
The Rise & Fall of the Confederate Flag in South Carolina – I wrote this a few weeks back, but it’s very relevant to today’s news.
Reading Tea Leaves on the 2015 Supreme Court Term – Basically just some educated speculation on who would write what and when, which ended up having mixed results.
Democratic Party Now Literally Selling Hate – a Father’s Day gift post!
Bernie Sanders, Deodorant and Diversity – a meditation on central planning and markets.
Marco Rubio Recounts The History of Obama’s Treatment of Israel – quick hit on a great Rubio floor speech. Rubio isn’t my first choice in 2016, but he’s done nothing but impress this year.
From the fall:
2014 and Republican Morale – a GOP victory lap and a reflection on what it meant.
The Breakers Broke: A Look Back At The Fall 2014 Polls – A personal victory lap on my 2014 poll analysis and how it relates to the polling controversies of 2012.
The 2014 Polls And The 2012 Exit Polls – An earlier look at the same topic and at some specific issues with exit polling and poll methodology.
Nobody at Vox.com Has Read The Fourteenth Amendment
BREAKING: Supreme Court Takes Obamacare Subsidies Case (on King v Burwell).
First Cut: 7 Polling and Elections Lessons From 2014 (Immediate 2014 election aftermath)
Why I Voted Yes On Question 1 (NY) (Election Day post on a NY ballot initiative)
Final Senate Breakers & Governors Breakers Report November 3, 2014
Senate Breakers Report October 30, 2014
Governors Breakers Report October 30, 2014
A Sad and Desperate Attack on Chris Christie – Actually a fairly deep dive on voter fraud controversies.
Governors Breakers Report October 22, 2014
Senate Breakers Report October 21, 2014
Senate and Governors Breakers Report October 10, 2014
Senate Breakers Report and Governors Breakers Report: Oct 1
Introducing The Senate Breakers Report – September 26, 2014, the start of my Fall 2014 stretch drive when I started getting too busy to cross-post here.
RS: The Breakers Broke: A Look Back At The Fall 2014 Polls
As promised in my first cut after the election, a more detailed walk by the numbers through the 2014 Senate and Governors race polling and my posts on the subject to illustrate that the election unfolded pretty much along the lines I projected on September 15, when I wrote that “[i]f…historical patterns hold in 2014, we would…expect Republicans to win all the races in which they currently lead plus two to four races in which they are currently behind, netting a gain of 8 to 10 Senate seats.”
This was not a consensus position of the models projecting the Senate races at the time; Sam Wang, Ph.D. wrote on September 9 that “the probability that Democrats and Independents will control 50 or more seats is 70%” and described a 9-seat GOP pickup as “a clear outlier event.” On September 16, the Huffington Post model had a 53% chance of the Democrats keeping the Senate, while the Daily Kos model on September 15 had the Democrats with a 54% chance of retaining their Senate majority. Nate Cohn at the New York Times on September 15 gave the GOP just a 53% chance of adding as many as 6 seats, with Republicans having just a 35% chance of winning in Iowa, 18% in Colorado and 18% in North Carolina, and a 56% chance of winning in Alaska. The Washington Post on September 14 had the Democrats favored in Alaska, with a 92% chance of winning Colorado and a 92% chance of winning North Carolina. Even Nate Silver and Harry Enten’s FiveThirtyEight Senate forecast, which was more optimistic than some of the others for Republicans at the time, gave the GOP just a 53% chance of making it to a 6-seat gain as of September 16.
In this case, at least, my reading of history was right, and was a better predictor of the trajectory of the race than the models or the contemporaneous polls they were based on. That won’t always be true; it wasn’t in the 2012 Presidential race. It may or may not prove true in the 2016 Presidential race, where the historical trends overwhelmingly favor Republicans. But after 2012 we were greeted with an onslaught of triumphalism for polls, poll averages and poll models, and what 2014 illustrates is not only that – as we already knew – the models are only as good as the polls, but also that there remains a place for analysis and historical perspective and not just putting blind faith in numbers and mathematical models without examining their assumptions (a point that some of the more cautious analysts, like Silver and Enten, tried to their credit to stress to their readers during the 2014 season).
It also validates my broader view that subjects like polling are best understood when you have an adversarial process of competing arguments rather than deference to a consensus of experts. Because poll analysis down the home stretch involves a high degree of emotional involvement in partisan wins and losses – and most people who get involved in arguments about polling have strong partisan preferences – it’s next to impossible to avoid the pull of confirmation bias, the tendency to credit arguments you want to see win and discredit those you want to see defeated. Certainly mathematical models and poll averages can offer a check against bias, but inevitably they also rest on assumptions that incorporate bias as well. It remains broadly true, as I pointed out repeatedly in and after the 2012 election, that liberal poll analysts and Democratic pollsters tend to do a better job in years when Democrats do well, and that conservative poll analysts and Republican pollsters tend to do a better job in years when Republicans do well, because in each case they are more likely to credit the assumptions that prove accurate. Nate Silver just published a fascinating post on how the 2014 pollsters tended to “herd” towards each other’s results, which tends to exacerbate the problem of being skewed in one or another direction in any given year – more proof of streiff’s view of the herd mentality of pollsters and Erick’s view of polls weighting towards 2012 models without an adequate baseline, and another strike against expert “consensus” thinking and in favor of the virtues of examining your assumptions. The best corrective for the reader to apply to these biases is to listen to both sides, examine the plausibility of their assumptions, and then go back later and evaluate their results.
RS: Senate Breakers Report and Governors Breakers Report: Oct 1
When we last left the Senate races on Friday, the state of the polling was consistent with the theory that undecided voters would break for the GOP due to President Obama’s low approval ratings and the consequent surge for the GOP in the generic ballot, but we had not yet seen enough movement to conclude that this was actually going to happen. We have new polling since then in eight of the 20 “battleground” Senate races, and the story remains similar, but slightly more optimistic for Republicans in a few of the key races, notably Iowa. But we still lack good polling in Kansas, and the New Hampshire Senate race continues to look like the toughest nut to crack. I’ll also discuss the governors races below.
I owe longtime readers here some explanation and apology – my work at both RedState and The Federalist is now exclusive, at least when first published, to those sites, and while I post links on Twitter and Facebook, I tend to forget sometimes to post links back here at the old stomping grounds. (I may well close the comments section here too soon, since the lack of activity means a high spam-to-real-comments ratio, and since most regular commenters by now know how to find me elsewhere).
Here’s my most recent posts over the past month, all of them on matters of politics and/or history:
Ferguson, Missouri and the Fog of Partisanship and Ideology
93% of Democratic Senate or Governor Candidates Are White
Where I Was On September 11 (a repost of the annual remembrance)
Is The Democratic Party Proud of its History of Slavery & Segregation?
Mid-September Polls Are Not The Last Word On Senate Races
History Is Not On The Democrats’ Side In 2016
Presidential Battleground States: A History
RS: Mid-September Polls Are Not The Last Word On Senate Races
The perennial question about election polls is back again, if ever it left: how far can we trust them? Should we disregard all other evidence but what the current polling of individual Senate races tells us – which is, at this writing, that if the election was held today, Republicans would gain 6 seats in the Senate to hold a narrow 51-48 majority? As usual, a little historical perspective is in order. It is mid-September, with just over seven weeks to Election Day, and as discussed below, all the fundamental signs show that this is at least a mild Republican “wave” year. A review of the mid-September polls over the last six Senate election cycles, all of which ended in at least a mild “wave” for one party, shows that it is common for the “wave party” to win a few races in which it trailed in mid-September – sometimes more than a few races, and sometimes races in which there appeared to be substantial leads, and most frequently against the other party’s incumbents. Whereas it is very uncommon for the wave party to lose a polling lead, even a slim one, after mid-September – it has happened only three times, one of those was a tied race rather than a lead, and another involved the non-wave party replacing its candidate on the ballot with a better candidate. If these historical patterns hold in 2014, we would therefore expect Republicans to win all the races in which they currently lead plus two to four races in which they are currently behind, netting a gain of 8 to 10 Senate seats.
The polling tells us that the bulk of 2014’s contested Senate races are basically dogfights. So why are so many Republicans optimistic? Because it’s still June, and some of the elements of the dynamics of 2014 may not be fully baked into the polling yet. How good a year this is for the GOP will depend on those factors.
If you look at the chart at the top of this post, what you pretty clearly can see from the data is that the Senate races right now seem to be sorted into three general groups (although in each group I’m including one race that is less favorable for the GOP than the rest).
Group One, three currently Democrat-held seats in deep-red territory without real incumbents, is the likely GOP blowouts. Montana and South Dakota are both looking locked up, and the South Dakota polling may get even uglier for the Democrats if the third-party support for Larry Pressler (a former Republican Senator running as an independent) fades. West Virginia is closer, close enough that a giant gaffe or scandal or something could put it back on the table, and in a different year or state a 10-point lead would not look insurmountable. But it’s hard to see where that support comes from, in a 2014 midterm in West Virginia.
Group Two is the tossups, nine states that are really too close to call right now. Seven of the nine are Democrat-held seats, five with incumbents (Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana and North Carolina) and two open seats (Iowa and Michgigan). One of the two GOP-held seats has an incumbent (Kentucky), the other is open (Georgia). The Democrats have settled on candidates in all nine, Republicans still have a primary in Alaska (the poll average here is the matchup of frontrunner Dan Sullivan against incumbent Mark Begich), a runoff in Georgia (the poll average here is the matchup of frontrunner Jack Kingston against Democrat nominee Michelle Nunn), and a “jungle primary” that will probably result in a December runoff in Louisiana (the poll average here is the runoff matchup of frontrunner Bill Cassidy against incumbent Mary Landrieu). In only one of these races, in Michigan, does the current leader have a 5-point lead; in five of the nine races the frontrunner is below 45%, and in eight of the nine (all but Cassidy in Louisiana) below 46%. While a 2 or 3-point lead in the polls in October may be meaningful, a race with a lead that size in June and 10-20 percent undecided is functionally a tossup, at least until you take into consideration the various factors (national environment, state electorate) that are likely to pull the race in one direction or another as we enter the fall.
Why do Republican analysts feel so optimistic? Because polls, as we recall from 2010 and 2012, are only as good as their ability to project who will turn out and vote, and we are probably still a few months from pollsters being able to really make accurate assessments of what the fall electorate will look like. As Sam Wang, Ph.D., has noted, the various models for predicting how the Senate races will go are predicting different things depending on the extent to which they look beyond the polls to incorporate predictive elements like the economy, the effect of incumbency, the President’s approval rating, and the like. Sean Trende, here and here, offered a model based mainly on Obama’s approval rating, and found even after some tweaks to incorporate a few other variables, that Democrats could be projected to face double-digit Senate seat losses if the President’s approval rating was 43% or lower on Election Day.
That’s just one way of skinning this cat, but right now, Obama’s approval sits at 41.5 approval/53.9 disapproval, and has been trending rather sharply downward for the past month, with his approval on the economy, foreign policy and healthcare all consistently worse than his overall approval rating. (Via Ace, it’s even worse in the battleground states). In that national environment, with midterm elections in general tending to produce Republican-leaning electorates, and with the historic poor performance of second-term presidents in sixth-year midterms, you really have to feel pretty good about GOP chances of winning most of those nine races. That may seem improbable, but there were basically seven Senate races that went to the wire or involved potentially big Democratic upsets in 2012 – Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Virginia, Massachusetts, Indiana, and Missouri – and I didn’t think at the time they would run the table and win all seven. They did. In a few of those, like Virginia and Wisconsin, the Senate races tracked almost precisely the outcome in the Presidential race, meaning turnout from the top of the ticket was decisive. If the national environment really does show as sour across the board for Democrats in November as it looks from today, eight-for-nine or nine-for-nine could be a possibility. If the environment (including the parties’ turnout operations) swings back to a more neutral one, I’d be looking more at the GOP winning five of the nine, which would net a six-seat overall gain in the Senate, enough for control of the chamber but by a very narrow margin that might not last beyond 2016.
For now, that’s still a big if, not reflected in polls showing voters not really ready to commit to either side in most of those races. It’s why Republicans are waiting for the wave. But it’s also a reminder that those races won’t win themselves – Democrats ran the table in 2012 by fighting all the way to the whistle in every race with every resource they had. One thing helping the GOP may be the Governor’s races: for example, Rick Snyder is now comfortably ahead in the polls in Michigan, and the Colorado GOP dodged a repeat of the 2010 trainwreck by picking Bob Beauprez over Tom Tancredo; Beauprez may not beat John Hickenlooper, but he’ll give him a tough race without Tancredo’s divisiveness.
Finally, there’s Group Three, the races in which the polling shows the Democrats safe for now – but, depending on the national environment, maybe not safe enough just yet to declare those races over. Incumbents Jeff Merkley in Oregon, Al Franken in Minnesota, Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire all have leads around 10 points, and Mark Warner in Virginia has a sixteen-point lead on Ed Gillespie. (It’s also always possible some other races could come on the board; there hasn’t been much in the way of general election polling in Mississippi or New Mexico, for example. But we’ll have to wait and see). But none of them are regularly polling above 50%, the usual rule of thumb for a safe incumbent.
Realistically, those are “reach” races that only go on the board if things really get ugly for the Democrats. Oregon is, I would guess, the best hope for the GOP relative to its present polling given the Cover Oregon fiasco, New Hampshire the toughest of the OR-MN-NH trio due to Shaheen’s personal popularity and the likelihood of a landslide win for the Democrats in the Governor’s race (the other two will have tight GOV races). Also, Al Franken has a huge warchest, so his race with self-funder Mike McFadden could get ugly and expensive. Virginia, of course, is the longest reach, but Gillespie should be sufficiently well-funded and anodyne to take advantage if Warner slides into the neighborhood of actually being vulnerable.
Predictions? Anybody who’s predicting the fall elections in June with too much certainty is nuts. But right now, Republicans have a lot of opportunities in the Senate. If Obama’s approval rating keeps tanking, the GOP avoids any major campaign-killing gaffes, and the Democrats don’t come up with a magic turnout bullet, the swing in the Senate could be bigger than anyone is realistically talking about right now. Don’t count your chickens; this is just the optimistic scenario. But it is not, from the vantage point of late June, an unrealistic one.
RS: The Democrats’ 2014 Whitewash
Barack Obama’s electoral success has shown the Democratic Party the value of a non-white candidate in driving turnout and enthusiasm among the non-white voters that are vital to the party’s success. So why are nearly all the statewide Democratic candidates this year white?
If there is one central theme to the political strategy of the Democrats and the electoral analysis and optimism of liberal pundits in the Obama era, it is race. To say that they are obsessed with these topics is to vastly understate the case. Virtually every analysis of “the Republicans’ demographic problems” and the long-term case for Democratic/progressive dominance is premised upon the rising share of non-white voters in the electorate and their identification with the Democrats. To be sure, these are not Republicans’ only challenges – even with younger white voters there are a few issues (mainly same-sex marriage and marijuana) on which the GOP is out of step with generational trends, and there is legitimate concern that younger voters of all races are less likely to be religious or get married, two traditional markers of conservatism. But even looking at the 2012 election returns, we see that Barack Obama lost white women by the largest margin of any candidate of either party since Walter Mondale, suffered a huge reversal among white voters under 30 (who he lost by 7 points after winning them by double digits in 2008), and even narrowly lost white women under 30. So, all of the Democrats’ advantages along gender and age lines are still really just symptoms of a racially polarized electorate.
And turning out that electorate has been a challenge for Democrats. The big turnout wave of African-Americans for Obama exceeded anything John Kerry or Al Gore was ever able to muster, and the midterm elections in 2009, 2010, and 2013 (with the arguable exception of the 2013 Virginia Governor’s race) yielded electorates that were older, whiter and more conservative than the 2008 or 2012 electorates (this was even true in 2006, although depressed GOP turnout and heavy independent support for Democrats made that a big year for the Democrats anyway). There has been much open fretting by Democrats that the turnout will look the same this year – which threatens to make this a serious wave year for Republicans, given the public mood. That’s even before you get to the fact that Democrats’ rising success with non-white voters has coincided with hemorrhaging support among white voters and the very real possibility that the Democrats haven’t yet found their floor among white voters. To say nothing of the possibility that the natural long-term arc of Hispanic voter preferences may move back in the direction of the GOP. In the immediate term, we have already seen polling showing that Hispanics are the most disillusioned of Obama’s 2012 supporters. Few things in a two-party political system are forever.
And there is a very real sense in which the big turnout of 2008 and especially 2012 was a show of racial solidarity with Obama (and his wife) personally, as much as it was a traditionally political phenomenon. There were all sorts of signs of this in the 2012 exit polls. Only 23% of voters in the exit polls said that the economy was in good or excellent shape, for example, but 90% of these voted for Obama. Who are these voters? A July 2013 Quinnipiac poll – somewhat typical of the breakdowns these days – found that 47% of black voters, but only 25% of white voters, described the state of the economy as good or excellent. By contrast, an October 2007 CNN poll found 69% of black voters describing the economy as in recession, compared to 42% of white voters. This, despite the fact that the objective evidence shows unemployment significantly higher among African-Americans in 2013 than 2007.
But forget the data; listen to liberal African-American pundits. Here is The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, laying it out in the purplest of prose:
Barack Obama was not prophecy. Whatever had been laid before him, it takes gifted hands to operate, repeatedly, on a country scarred by white supremacy. The significance of the moment comes across, not simply in policy, by in the power of symbolism. I don’t expect, in my lifetime, to again see a black family with the sheer beauty of Obama’s on such a prominent stage. (In the private spaces of black America, I see them all the time.) I don’t expect to see a black woman exuding the kind of humanity you see here on such a prominent stage ever again….I don’t ever expect to see a black man of such agile intelligence as the current president put before the American public ever again.
This symbolism has real meaning. What your country tells you it thinks of you has real meaning. If you see people around you acquiring college degrees and rising only to work as Pullman porters or in the Post Office, while in other communities men become rich, you take a certain message from this. If you see your father being ripped off in the sharecropping fields of Mississippi, you take a certain message about your own prospects. If the preponderance of men in your life are under the supervision of the state, you take some sense of how your country regards you. And if you see someone who is black like you, and was fatherless like you, and endures the barbs of American racism like you, and triumphs like no one you’ve ever known, that too sends a message.
And this messenger – who is Barack Obama – becomes something more to black people. He becomes a champion of black imagination, of black dreams and black possibilities. For liberals and Democrats, the prospect of an Obama defeat in 2012 meant the reversal of an agenda they favored. For black people, the fight was existential. “Please proceed, governor,” will always mean something more to us, something akin to Ali’s rope-a-dope, Louis over Schmeling, or Doug Williams over John Elway.
How does a black writer approach The Man when The Man is not just us, but the Champion of our ambitions?
Or here is the Daily Beast’s Jamelle Bouie, writing in the midst of that election:
The upside of making the race of the candidate an existential issue for African-American voters is, it’s a tremendous motivator to turn out to keep the symbolic leader in office. The downside is, it’s not easily transferable to other candidates – not to other non-white candidates for lower offices, and certainly not to a bunch of white politicians who look pretty much just like the people they are running against.
And yet, bafflingly, that is exactly what the Democrats are running in 2014. At this writing, the Democrats are running a candidate in 62 Senate and Governors’ races this fall (nobody has really stepped forward yet in the Nevada, Tennessee or Wyoming Governors’ races). And depending how you count the frontrunners, anywhere from 57 to 60 of those 62 candidates will be white (92-96%), and 47 to 49 of them will be white males (more than 75%). Let’s take a look at that roster of candidates, ranked by a very rough ranking of the competitiveness of the races (“1” being hotly contested races, “2” being races that will be contested but with a clear favorite, “3” being races that look lopsided and may end up being de facto cakewalks – this is giving the benefit of the doubt that a lot more races will be competitive than polling may suggest, but races like the New York and Texas governorships will be big-time battles even if the outcome seems pretty clear in advance). I also rated as at least a 2 every race with a Republican Senate incumbent who has a non-obscure Tea Party challenger. I marked with an asterisk the races in which the Democrats have a significant chance of ending up with a different candidate – for example, the one black female candidate here, Richland County Councilwoman Joyce Dickerson in South Carolina, is an obscure candidate with a white male opponent in a race so unlikely to be contested that there’s been no polling (I rate her as the frontrunner because she at least holds elective office, but with a primary electorate that ran Alvin Greene in 2010, you never know). One white male Democratic Senator, Brian Shatz, faces an Asian female primary opponent, Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, who may well defeat him, and David Alameel in Texas is in a runoff with Kesha Rogers, a black female LaRouchie who wants to impeach Obama. On the flip side, the two non-white Democratic frontrunners for Governor, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras in Rhode Island and Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown in Maryland, still face significant white primary opponents – Rhode Island State Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler, respectively. So the number of non-white candidates could easily go down rather than up.
|AK||SEN||Incumbent D||Mark Begich||1||White||Male|
|AR||SEN||Incumbent D||Mark Pryor||1||White||Male|
|CO||SEN||Incumbent D||Mark Udall||1||White||Male|
|LA||SEN||Incumbent D||Mary Landrieu||1||White||Female|
|NC||SEN||Incumbent D||Kay Hagan||1||White||Female|
|NH||SEN||Incumbent D||Jeanne Shaheen||1||White||Female|
|CO||GOV||Incumbent D||John Hickenlooper||1||White||Male|
|CT||GOV||Incumbent D||Dan Malloy||1||White||Male|
|IL||GOV||Incumbent D||Pat Quinn||1||White||Male|
|MT||SEN||Incumbent D (App)||John Walsh||1||White||Male|
|KY||SEN||Incumbent R||Alison Lundergan Grimes||1||White||Female|
|FL||GOV||Incumbent R||Charlie Crist||1||White||Male|
|KS||GOV||Incumbent R||Paul Davis||1||White||Male|
|ME||GOV||Incumbent R||Mike Michaud||1||White||Male|
|MI||GOV||Incumbent R||Mark Schauer||1||White||Male|
|NM||GOV||Incumbent R||Gary King*||1||White||Male|
|OH||GOV||Incumbent R||Ed Fitzgerald||1||White||Male|
|PA||GOV||Incumbent R||Tom Wolf*||1||White||Male|
|IA||SEN||Open D||Bruce Braley||1||White||Male|
|MI||SEN||Open D||Gary Peters||1||White||Male|
|MA||GOV||Open D||Martha Coakley*||1||White||Female|
|RI||GOV||Open D||Angel Taveras*||1||Hispanic||Male|
|MN||SEN||Incumbent D||Al Franken||2||White||Male|
|NM||SEN||Incumbent D||Tom Udall||2||White||Male|
|OR||SEN||Incumbent D||Jeff Merkley||2||White||Male|
|VA||SEN||Incumbent D||Mark Warner||2||White||Male|
|HI||GOV||Incumbent D||Neil Abercrombie||2||White||Male|
|MN||GOV||Incumbent D||Mark Dayton||2||White||Male|
|NH||GOV||Incumbent D||Maggie Hassan||2||White||Female|
|NY||GOV||Incumbent D||Andrew Cuomo||2||White||Male|
|OR||GOV||Incumbent D||John Kitzhaber||2||White||Male|
|HI||SEN||Incumbent D (App)||Brian Shatz*||2||White||Male|
|KS||SEN||Incumbent R||Chad Taylor||2||White||Male|
|ME||SEN||Incumbent R||Shenna Bellows||2||White||Female|
|MS||SEN||Incumbent R||Travis Childers||2||White||Male|
|GA||GOV||Incumbent R||Jason Carter||2||White||Male|
|IA||GOV||Incumbent R||Jack Hatch||2||White||Male|
|SC||GOV||Incumbent R||Vincent Sheheen||2||White||Male|
|WI||GOV||Incumbent R||Mary Burke||2||White||Female|
|SD||SEN||Open D||Rick Weiland||2||White||Male|
|WV||SEN||Open D||Natalie Tennant||2||White||Female|
|AR||GOV||Open D||Mike Ross||2||White||Male|
|MD||GOV||Open D||Anthony Brown*||2||Black||Male|
|GA||SEN||Open R||Michelle Nunn||2||White||Female|
|AZ||GOV||Open R||Chuck Hassebrook||2||White||Male|
|TX||GOV||Open R||Wendy Davis||2||White||Female|
|DE||SEN||Incumbent D||Chris Coons||3||White||Male|
|IL||SEN||Incumbent D||Dick Durbin||3||White||Male|
|NJ||SEN||Incumbent D||Cory Booker||3||Black||Male|
|RI||SEN||Incumbent D||Jack Reed||3||White||Male|
|CA||GOV||Incumbent D||Jerry Brown||3||White||Male|
|VT||GOV||Incumbent D||Peter Shumlin||3||White||Male|
|SC||SEN||Incumbent R||Jay Stamper||3||White||Male|
|TN||SEN||Incumbent R||Terry Adams||3||White||Male|
|TX||SEN||Incumbent R||David Alameel*||3||White||Male|
|AK||GOV||Incumbent R||Byron Mallot||3||White||Male|
|AL||GOV||Incumbent R||Parker Griffith*||3||White||Male|
|ID||GOV||Incumbent R||AJ Balukoff||3||White||Male|
|SD||GOV||Incumbent R||Joe Lowe*||3||White||Male|
|SC||SEN||Incumbent R (App)||Joyce Dickerson*||3||Black||Female|
|NE||SEN||Open R||David Domina*||3||White||Male|
|NE||GOV||Open R||Fred Duval||3||White||Male|
As you can see here, beyond Cory Booker (who faced a real race in October but as of now has no real opponent), not only are the Democrats running a virtually all-white slate of candidates in the marquee statewide races, just about every Democrat in a hotly contested race this year is white. (Protip to activists: somebody with the time to put together a graphic of all these candidates could have some fun with it).
Should that matter? Of course not. Does it? Look at the primary results from this week’s Democratic gubernatorial primary in Texas – and you can see that white female abortion zealot Wendy Davis lost most of the Southwest Texas border counties – the places where Barack Obama did best in 2012 – to a primary opponent who has basically no campaign, but who had a Hispanic surname:
The result was stunningly low turnout in favor of a Democratic nominee in Texas. As it happens, these are also the most Hispanic counties in Texas:
The GOP candidate, Greg Abbott, will not hesitate to send his Hispanic wife, Cecilia, to campaign there.
For a party so focused on “diversity” as a slogan and the turnout of non-white voting blocs as a lifeline, it’s hard to see why you would run that risk. Of course, a similar analysis of the leading Republicans would also show a heavily white, heavily male slate – but a little less so: Republicans are running two non-white incumbents in South Carolina, Nikki Haley and Tim Scott, two incumbent Hispanic Governors in Brian Sandoval and Susanna Martinez, and a Native Hawaiian gubernatorial candidate, former two-term Lieutenant Governor Duke Aiona, as well as a number of white female candidates. And more to the point, Republicans are already doing fine with white voters; they’re not the ones who are existentially dependent upon firing up non-white voters with racial appeals. Democrats are – and so their failure to recruit and develop more non-white candidates adds yet another cause for alarm in what is already shaping up to be an alarming election season.
And if the results are ugly, that may make the Democrats rethink running a 69-year-old white woman as their national candidate in 2016.
(NOTE: The original version of this article stated that Joyce Dickerson’s opponent in the race to run against Tim Scott had a felony record – actually, it’s Jay Stamper, who is running against Lindsay Graham, who has a felony record. I’ve corrected that as quickly as I could.)
We all know how far President Obama’s approval rating has fallen, 13 months after his re-election. Gallup had a fascinating look at who exactly has lost faith in Obama, among poll respondents who approved of him a year ago. And prominent among the groups with the biggest drop is the supposed bedrock of the Permanent Democrat Majority™ – self-identified Hispanic voters.
As always, bear in mind that Gallup is only one pollster, and not the most reliable one at that, and that sub-samples tend to be smaller sample sizes than an entire poll. That said, a comparison between two polls by the same pollster at different points in time is an apples-to-apples comparison, and so of some use in tracking trends. I’d supplement this with similar data from other pollsters, but surprisingly few of the daily, weekly or monthly presidential-approval tracking polls provide this kind of breakdown on a regular basis (although a mid-November Quinnipiac poll showed Obama’s approval underwater with Hispanics, 41-47, compared to 67-18 approval a year ago). That’s precisely why Gallup’s results are so interesting.
Here’s Gallup’s chart, which measures the net drop in points among different groups in their approval of Obama between his post-spring-2009 high water-mark in December 2012 and November 2013:
Bearing in mind that some of these are overlapping groups, you can see not only that Hispanics register a 23-point drop in approval, the largest of any group, but others near the top are also essential elements of any winning Democratic coalition: the youngest voters (18-29 year olds), the poorest (incomes under $24,000), the least educated (high school or less), various stripes of moderates and independents, women, the unmarried, the irreligious and voters in the Northeast and Midwest. Obama has lost the least support among those where he had the least support to start with: conservative Republicans, conservatives, Republicans. He’s dropped at least 8 points among everyone else.
But a second way to look at these numbers is in percentage terms, to adjust for the fact that it’s easier to lose more support among groups where you had more to start with. So, here are those figures:
|VOTER SEGMENT||12-Dec||13-Nov||% Decline|
|Independents w/no party leaning||41||28||-32%|
|Less than $24,000 income||64||46||-28%|
|High sch education or less||54||39||-28%|
|18- to 29-year-olds||61||46||-25%|
|Attend Church weekly||45||34||-24%|
|50- to 64-year-olds||52||40||-23%|
|Seldom/Never attend church||58||45||-22%|
|30- to 49-year olds||54||42||-22%|
|Attend church monthly||54||42||-22%|
|$24,000 to <$60,000 annual income||51||40||-22%|
|$90,000 or more annual income||50||40||-20%|
|65-year-olds and older||44||36||-18%|
|Some college education||50||41||-18%|
|College graduate only||50||41||-18%|
|$60,000 to <$90,000 annual income||49||41||-16%|
Here, we see unaffiliated independents – perhaps unsurprisingly – at the top of the list, along with liberal Republicans, but Hispanics in a very close third place, with the poor, the uneducated and Midwesterners also high on the list (the latter is a danger sign for Democrats in Michigan, Iowa, and Minnesota next fall). By contrast, on a percentage basis, the three least-shaken elements of Obama’s base are – unsurprisingly – black voters, among whom he’s lost just 10% of his prior support, and liberal Democrats and Democrats as a whole, the only other two groups to show less than a 16% decline – and the dropoff among those two groups would doubtless be higher if you excluded his unshakeable support among black voters.
And bear in mind, these are losses among people who approved of the job Obama was doing after watching him in office for four years. These aren’t voters who reject liberals or Democrats out of hand, or – if you buy into the excuse for every criticism of Obama – voters who don’t like him because he’s black. Most of them likely voted for the man, twice. And the most likely reason they are turning on him is simply because he’s not getting the job done – his policies aren’t working, the economy continues to disappoint, and he still isn’t delivering the things he promises. As the LIBRE Initiative’s Executive Director, Daniel Garza, put it, after noting that the November Quinnipiac poll had showed just 44% approval among Hispanics for Obamacare:
The dramatic drop in support from the U.S. Hispanic community should not come as a surprise to anyone. Instead of effectively addressing Immigration, the slow economy, the lack of access to affordable care, and other critical issues over these past five years, President Obama has delivered mostly empty rhetoric and a record of stagnant Unemployment , diminished household incomes and a tepid GDP growth rate. Americans deserve better.
It is not too late for a real agenda focused on private sector job growth, market-based health reform that empowers doctors and patients, and true bipartisan cooperation on Immigration reform. For too long now Hispanics have been called on by this Administration for political points, and our community is tired of the broken promises and bad policies that have left many of us worse off.
The immediate lesson here is that, for all the Democrats’ bluster, Hispanics are simply not African-Americans. They may have identified to some degree with him against his critics as the first non-white President, they may like some of the things the Democrats stand for, and they may even feel – not without reason – that Republicans want to kick them out of the country. But none of that alone is enough to make them permanent Democratic partisans if they don’t see results.
Republicans face a variety of challenges in appealing to Hispanic voters, even moreso than some of the other voter groups that are increasingly disenchanted with Obama. They will not be cheap dates for the GOP. But Democrats are learning that they are growing increasingly tired of being told to just sit back and pull the lever for Obama’s pursuit of MacGuffins. Republicans have an opportunity, if they will work for it.
Daily polls can make your head spin, and getting too excited or distressed by a single poll is never advisable. But sometimes, a clear trend emerges in poll after poll that cannot be denied. And that trend is now beyond dispute: a majority of American voters think Barack Obama is not doing a good job as our President. Looking at the RealClearPolitics polling average, Obama has:
-Had more voters disapprove than approve of his job performance every day since early June;
-Seen over 50% disapproval consistently since early August;
-Seen the disapprovals outnumber the approvals by double digits on November 8 for the first time in his presidency, and stay there; and
-Hit 55% disapproval five days ago and stay above that level.
Obama’s approval is now down to 40.5%, registering above 42% in only one poll in the average, Rasmussen Reports (Rasmussen, once a reliable if somewhat GOP-leaning pollster, has become increasingly volatile and less transparent since the departure of its founder Scott Rasmussen, who started scaling back his involvement earlier this year and left the company in August). It’s possible that it may drop below 40 for the first time any day now, as it’s no longer rare to see individual polls with a 38 or 39% rating – an approval rating lower than crack-smoking Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. Over at the Huffington Post’s HuffPost Pollster page, Obama’s approval rating is so low it has literally fallen off the chart; you have to adjust the default settings (which bottom out at 42.5%) to find it:
In one bit of irony, consider Mitt Romney’s famous remark:
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.
As far as approving of this President, Romney has been proven wrong: Obama’s approval rating hasn’t seen 47% since June 10.
It’s true, of course, that a chunk of the people disapproving of Obama are his own 2012 supporters – but that’s the point! Presidents don’t really get in trouble until they start disenchanting their own side. It’s also true, as we recall from 2012, that national polls of this nature are not as precise as state-by-state polling in predicting voter behavior and turnout – but a persistent and growing gap this size is hard to hide, and if you use HuffPo’s widget (which lets you examine a sub-sample of pollsters) to back out the impact of Gallup and Rasmussen, Obama’s numbers get worse, not better.
Why does all this matter? Let’s quote a few of the arguments.
Sean Trende looks at the impact on 2014 House races, although of course the calculus as to the map is quite different for Senate races:
[P]residential job approval is still the most important variable for how his party fares in midterm elections, explaining about half of the variance. The relationship is highly statistically significant: For every point in job approval the president loses, his party loses 0.6 percent of its caucus. (The chart doesn’t measure drop in job approval; just job approval.) So, at 60 percent, the president should lose 5 percent of his caucus; at 50 percent, it is around 12 percent of his caucus lost; at 40 percent, it’s about 18 percent of his caucus lost — which would be 36 seats.
Now the latter is highly unlikely to happen. To pick up 36 seats, the GOP would have to win every seat that Obama won with 56 percent of the vote or less in 2012…Because the GOP’s seat total is well above its historical average (the third-largest majority since 1946), 40 seats probably describes the universe of potentially competitive seats, rather than the number of seats that Democrats are likely to lose.
As I’ve said before, this election isn’t going to be about sixth-year itches or any such electoral mumbo-jumbo. It’s going to be about presidential job approval, supplemented by the state of the economy (which also affects job approval to a degree) and how overexposed or underexposed the president’s party is. Right now, the second factor provides a drag beyond the president’s job approval, while the third factor will work heavily to Democrats’ advantage on Election Day.
With that said, the best midterm showing for the party of a president with a sub-45 percent job approval came in 1950, when the Democrats lost 11 percent of their caucus. This election occurred under fairly similar circumstances: Harry Truman was unpopular, but his party was well below the number of seats it typically held and the economy was growing.
Chris Cillizza notes the impact on Obama’s ability to get things done, and that the trendline of his approval rating is more in common with that of George W. Bush than more popular second-term presidents like Reagan and Clinton who left their party in good shape in the next national election:
The loss of the Senate majority and a smaller minority in the House after November 2014 would make any attempt to rack up second-term accomplishments before he left office extremely difficult for Obama. Combine that with the reality that Obama’s second term has not exactly been larded with major wins to date and you understand why Obama and his legacy are on the ballot in 2014 — even if his name is not. And that means his poll numbers matter. A lot.
John Sides at The Monkey Cage noted back in June how much this can matter:
[I]t matters for whether the President gets what he wants from Congress—with some caveats. Here’s a sense of some of the scholarly literature on the relationship between presidential approval and legislative success. One question is whether Congress simply passes legislation that the president supports. In one study (gated) of 208 roll call votes in the House between 1989-2000, political scientists Brandice Canes-Wrone and Scott de Marchi found the House was more likely to do what the president wanted when the president was more popular. This effect was only significant among legislation that was both salient (mentioned a lot in news coverage) and somewhat complex (focusing on regulatory matters in particular). But, of course, that’s exactly the kind of legislation—e.g., immigration, gun control—that Obama would like to sign right now.
Another question is whether the legislation that passes is actually substantively close to what the president wanted. That is, the president may support legislation as long as it is closer to his preferences than the status quo, but still may not get what he wanted. Political scientists Andrew Barrett and Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha examined (pdf) 191 different major laws passed between 1965 and 2000 and measured how similar they were to what the president had asked for. Was the law basically a rubber stamp of the president’s position? Did the law force the president to compromise with congressional leaders? Or did the president sign it even though it was nothing like what he wanted? Barrett and Eshbaugh-Soha find that presidential approval was associated with laws that looked more like the president’s preferences.
Harry Enten noted in September that the odds are against Obama recovering by 2014: “The president’s approval rating has never increased by more than 7pt from this point after re-election until the midterm election.”
Enten, after looking at 2014, notes that the impact goes beyond it to 2016:
[T]he president’s approval plays a role in the election to find his successor. Once we control for the economy, every 5pt increase in a president’s net approval rating increases his party’s candidate’s margin by 1pt in the presidential election per Drew Linzer. An election his party might have won by 1pt had the incumbent president had a +5pt net approval rating becomes an election the incumbent party loses by 1pt with a -5pt rating.
By and large, presidents whose parties have done badly in 6th-year midterm elections have also seen their party lose ground in the national popular vote in the next election. Here, I charted out the parties from best to worst showings in holding onto their share of the popular vote in the next presidential election following a two-term presidency, and how they had done in the prior midterm – for example, the Democrats lost 0.9 points in the popular vote from 1996 to 2000, and I line that up here with their showing in the 1998 midterms; Republicans lost 7.8 points in 1960 from 1956, and I line that up with the 1958 midterms.
Here’s an expanded chart with a few more of the post-1860 presidents who don’t fit as neatly (for example, the GOP in 1904 had held the White House for 8 years, but its candidate was an incumbent, not a new contender trying to run on the party brand).
Here’s two charts lining up the showings overall of parties seeking to defend a presidential race after re-electing an incumbent; historically, Democrats have struggled slightly more than Republicans in hanging onto their share of the voters:
Note that Obama only won the popular vote in 2012 by 3.9 points, and there was no significant third-party candidate, so if the Democrats lose 2 or more points off their 2012 showing, they lose the popular vote (and you can win the Electoral College while losing the popular vote, as Bush did in 2000, but mathematically it’s almost impossible to do so unless it’s so close as to be almost a tie). In other words, if the Democrat in 2016 falls off Obama’s 2012 showing by 2 or more points, there’s a high likelihood that the next President will be a Republican – and the only non-incumbents running after an incumbent was re-elected (and thus, seeking a de facto third term with a new candidate) to suffer less than a 4-point falloff in popular vote were Gore in 2000 and Hoover in 1928.
None of this should suggest that Republicans don’t have problems of our own, or that success is about to fall inevitably into our laps. But with 55% of the public disapproving Obama and unlikely to change their minds in significant numbers, there’s a major opportunity for the GOP ahead.
Tomorrow – Tuesday, September 10 – New York City voters go to the polls to pick the major-party candidates for their next Mayor. Candidates need 40% of their party’s vote to avoid an October 1 runoff election among the top two finishers in the primary. At this writing, it appears that the nominees – possibly without a runoff – will be Republican candidate Joe Lhota (a former Rudy Giuliani aide and more recently Andrew Cuomo’s appointee to head the MTA transit system) and Democrat/Working Families Party candidate Bill de Blasio (a former David Dinkins aide and the city’s Public Advocate). To get from here to Election Day, the City may reopen old racial wounds and have to grapple with the legacy of its last three Mayors.
Five Decades, Four Mayors: Koch, Dinkins, Giuliani and Bloomberg
The Dinkins Debacle
It pays to begin with a thumbnail sketch of the past four mayors, beginning when David Dinkins toppled Ed Koch in the Democratic primary in 1989. Koch, elected in 1977 as the City reeled from a financial crisis, was then seeking his fourth term as Mayor after a scandal-riddled third term; Dinkins was running to become the City’s first African-American Mayor. Koch, once a liberal Congressman, had governed as a relatively pro-business Democrat (he was both the Democratic and Republican nominee in 1981) and rejected liberal political correctness on crime, although his anti-crime initiatives were less vigorous and successful than his revival of the City’s economy and finances. New York under Koch enjoyed the prosperity and Wall Street boom of the 80s, but it was neither particularly clean nor safe, with the burden of high crime rates falling most heavily on poor black and Hispanic neighborhoods; Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities aptly captured New York in the Koch era. But Democratic primary voters made the problem worse. Facing a ‘historic’ black candidate in Dinkins, Koch lost roughly 95% of the black vote in the primary, a showing on par with former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke’s 4% of the black vote in the general election for Louisiana Governor in 1991. (The Jewish Koch, a fighter for civil rights in the 60s, also had an increasingly acrimonious relationship with Jesse Jackson after Jackson called New York City “Hymietown” – an anti-Semitic slur – in 1984, as well as with rabble-rousing street preachers like then 35-year-old Al Sharpton.) Dinkins rolled up similar margins among black voters along the way to winning the general election against Rudy Giuliani, best known at the time as a crusading US Attorney who took on the mob, drug dealers and Wall Street insider trading.
To describe Dinkins as a failure as Mayor would be a massive understatement. Not even Jimmy Carter managed to discredit liberalism in action as garishly as Dinkins, who saw the murder rate explode and the city descend into the sort of chaos and racial strife that had liberals declaring it inherently ungovernable. In a 1993 rematch providing the same sort of perfect storm of opportunity to move the electorate rightward as Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory over Carter, Giuliani ousted Dinkins – but, this being New York, only narrowly. “Bad as the previous four years were – about 1,700 private-sector jobs lost every week on average, homicides surpassing 2,000 per year, more than 1 million residents on welfare – just about half the city was reluctant to give up on its first black mayor, and the voters in November 1993 ratified change only grudgingly. Incumbent David Dinkins was widely seen as ineffectual, but out of 1.75 million votes cast, in so heavily Democratic a town, Giuliani won by just 50,000.” To this day, Dinkins contends that racism rather than the catastrophic state of the City was behind Giuliani’s law-and-order campaign and victory (that’s not hyperbole: according to his 2013 autobiography, “I think it was just racism, pure and simple”).
The Rudy Revolution
What followed was a staggering turnaround in the City’s fortunes in general and its law enforcement in particular, completely revising everything people believed about the city’s safety and governance. Left-wing frequent Giuliani critic Michael Tomasky wrote that “[m]odern New York, with its safe streets, its gentrified Brooklyn, and booming tourist economy, was born on January 1, 1994. And, love him or hate him, it was Rudolph Giuliani who made the city what it is.” George Will called Rudy’s tenure “the most successful episode of conservative governance in this country in the last 50 years,” Reagan included. Thanks in good part to aggressive, hands-on policing that started with a “broken windows” theory of going after petty offenders like squeegee men, New York became the safest large city in America, the stratospheric murder rates a distant memory. The welfare rolls were cut in half, the public-sector unions brought in line, a few particularly onerous taxes cut, Times Square reclaimed from the hookers and the sex shops to be a place so family-friendly Disney would (literally) later open a store there. Rudy’s New York was still socially liberal and far from a libertarian paradise, but he had made it governable again.
Of course, there were always those who never accepted Rudy or his methods, most of all the Sharptonite resistance to Giuliani’s law enforcement policies. But a combination of internal Democratic division and external force kept them from unifying when Rudy’s tenure was up. Term limits put in place with the Koch third term in mind had made Rudy a lame duck by the time New York voters went to the polls on primary day of his final year in office: September 11, 2001. Between a racially divisive primary against Fernando Ferrer that saddled ultimate Democratic nominee Mark Green with low black turnout in November and the long shadow of the September 11 attacks, the voters elected to stay the Giuliani course with Mike Bloomberg. When the dust settled (literally), the billionaire who had built his fortune catering to Wall Street with trading desk terminals and business news was given the task of rebuilding the City’s shattered downtown.
Bloomberg Finds New York’s Center
While it’s easily forgotten in national conservative circles that revile him, Bloomberg’s 12 years in office (he shoved aside the term limits with the collusion of City Council Speaker Christine Quinn) have struck a course that is essentially centrist within the context of NY City politics, complete with drifting in and out of the Republican Party as it suited his purposes. Bloomberg continued and in some ways refined Rudy’s approach to law enforcement and management, making it more sophisticated in its use of increasingly detailed data. Rudy had been tough on guns; Bloomberg raised it to the level of anti-gun zealotry. He’s held the line against pressure to raise income taxes, and left the private sector mostly free of interference for economic purposes (as Bloomberg responds to charges of being ‘in the tank for Wall Street’: “I’m in the tank for industries in New York City! That’s my job. That’s the way people here eat!”). But Bloomberg often sticks his nose into business to advance one of his lifestyle crusades like banning big sodas, tossing smoking out of bars or inveighing against salt, and he also signed off on multiple rounds of property tax hikes. He’s pursued a neoliberal policy on education, accumulating more power in the Mayor’s office (his long-time schools chancellor, Joel Klein was Bill Clinton’s antitrust enforcer), promoting charter schools and using government controls to hold public schools more accountable – which, combined with a negotiating line that prevented reaching a contract with the teachers’ union the last several years, has earned him the enmity of the teachers. Befitting a former business executive, Bloomberg has proven a highly capable manager of day-to-day government operations, but has struggled when crises ranging from heavy winter snows to attempted terrorist attacks have called for him to rise to the occasion. And in myriad ways, when Bloomberg needed to buy off support or acquiescence to his policies and ambitions, he’s done it by throwing around his own considerable wealth rather than the taxpayers’ money.
Many New Yorkers have wearied of Bloomberg’s personality, soured on his evasion of term limits and dissented from this or that policy – as Jonathan Chait notes, Bloomberg’s contempt for the liberty or good opinion of the individual citizen has over 12 years worn poorly even in New York – but most observers of the New York scene would be hard-pressed to find evidence that the electorate wants a return to Dinkins-era progressivism run wild. A February 2013 Quinnipiac poll showed Bloomberg with a 53-40 positive approval rating and found that 31% of New York City voters cited Giuliani as the best Mayor of the past 50 years, with 25% saying Koch and 24% Bloomberg – compared to just 6% for the archliberal Dinkins, 6% for Great Society liberal Republican John Lindsay and 1% for conventional Democrat Abe Beame.
Bloomberg’s Heir: Christine Quinn Misreads The Primary Voters
The conventional wisdom entering the 2013 race, therefore, was that the City’s inherent Democratic partisanship (Democrats control nearly everything but the Mayor’s office) was overdue after two decades out of power to reassert itself, but most likely in the form of a candidate who would not run dramatically far to Bloomberg’s left. Enter Bloomberg’s reliable ally and co-conspirator, Christine Quinn. By any reckoning, Quinn was the heavy favorite when the primary began and well into the summer, and is the establishment candidate in the race, winning a rare trifecta of primary endorsements from the New York Times, the Daily News and the Post and running with Bloomberg’s blessing and de facto backing. Quinn backed Bloomberg on term limits and has mostly supported his education policies while joining forces on his various nanny-state crusades, and in a broad sense is seen as his heir. Yet, Quinn is distinctly more liberal than the billionaire, most notably on issues relating to private sector business, ranging from a more pro-union stance where Bloomberg has been generally neutral in private-sector labor disputes to an insane law permitting suits for discrimination against the unemployed that she passed over Bloomberg’s veto to caving to union pressure on a paid-sick-leave bill. (Quinn has been endorsed by the Teamsters and the building-trades unions). She’s also been an increasingly strident critic of the NYPD’s “stop and frisk” policies, and has a sour relationship with the NYPD’s union.
The massively powerful teachers’ union has been a particularly big obstacle for Quinn. Having worked four years without a contract, the teachers are looking for a budget-busting retroactive pay raise that (along with demands by the rest of the City’s 300,000 unionized workers) carries an estimated price tag in the $7-8 billion range (that’s a thousand dollars from every New Yorker). The 70,000-member UFT hasn’t endorsed a successful candidate since Dinkins, prompting Bloomberg to label its endorsement a “kiss of death.” The GOP candidates have opposed retroactive raises, with Lhota taking the lead on the issue; Weiner has suggested they be conditioned on concessions on the unions making contributions to their own healthcare (along the lines of what Chris Christie negotiated in New Jersey); Thompson has eagerly endorsed the teachers’ demand for retroactive raises, earning him the UFT’s endorsement; City Comptroller John Liu’s left-wing platform earned him the endorsement of District Council 37, the City’s largest public-worker union. Quinn and de Blasio have been cagier on the issue; Quinn has refused to deal in “hypothetical” questions about budget deals, while de Blasio has refused to rule in or out retroactive raises. The difference in their positions, however, is less important than issues of trust: teachers angry at the long stalemate with Bloomberg and his efforts to bring the schools under more Mayoral control have been unwilling to trust his wing-woman.
Quinn’s lead in the polls has crumbled so badly that she’s now seen as unlikely to make the runoff, if there is a runoff; liberal as she is, and as hard as she pushes identity politics (she touts herself as the potential first woman Mayor of New York; she would also be the City’s first openly gay Mayor – Koch’s sexual preferences were the subject of much speculation but never confirmed), she’s not a likeable campaigner and the Democratic primary voters seem inclined after two decades out of power to reassert their differences with Bloomberg. All of Quinn’s substantive dissents from Bloomberg haven’t managed to separate her in the public mind from the Mayor. And perhaps the most enduring lesson of Quinn’s imminent failure, in light of her alliance with Bloomberg on education, is that a white female Democrat simply cannot afford to be at odds with the teachers’ unions.
Dante’s Identity: Bill de Blasio and Race
For much of June and July, the Democratic primary race was divided into four tiers: Quinn and Anthony Weiner battling for the top spot in the low/mid 20s, de Blasio and Bill Thompson fighting for position in the low teens, Liu stuck in fifth place due to a lurid campaign-finance scandal, and the rest of the candidates (because what this goat rodeo really needs is more candidates) not even worthy of being polled and not registering when they were. As this great New York Times infographic illustrates, New York City politics remains a labyrinth of racial, religious, ideological and union voting blocs. Many observers, myself included, thought that it was premature to count out Thompson, given that he had won 48% of the vote in the 2009 general election against Bloomberg (who broke all known records for per-vote spending in a major election) and could draw on the traditional loyalty of African-American voters to black candidates, a particularly pronounced tendency in New York City over the years.
The race was rocked on July 23 when Buzzfeed broke the blockbuster revelation that the disgraced Weiner had continued his ‘sexting’ ways on the internet after being driven from Congress, beginning the process of the bottom dropping out of his support. By August 8, the RCP polling average had Quinn with a 10-point lead and Weiner, de Blasio and Thompson all tied up around 16%:
The Family Card
That’s when de Blasio rolled out this ad, featuring his 15-year-old son Dante (visibly reading off cue cards, but hey, he’s 15) and his eye-catching throwback-70s Afro:
The ad was such a hit that Dante has had to field questions about his own future political ambitions (he’d probably have to keep the now-signature Afro if that’s his plan). Quinnipiac, which has polled this primary race more than any other pollster, illustrates the dramatic effect that followed:
The “Dante” ad wasn’t the only factor at work, but it worked on two levels: one, at the level of raw identity politics, it spread awareness that de Blasio’s wife and son are African-American; and two, it hit directly on the racial hot-button accusation that the NYPD’s “stop and frisk” policy “unfairly targets people of color.” The cherry on top is de Blasio’s pledge to raise income taxes.
As to the former, on Saturday, Mayor Bloomberg made headlines with his response to the ad, which he initially described as “racist” before backtracking (and later pressuring NY Magazine to drop the “racist” reference):
I mean he’s making an appeal using his family to gain support. I think it’s pretty obvious to anyone watching what he’s been doing. I do not think he himself is racist. It’s comparable to me pointing out I’m Jewish in attracting the Jewish vote. You tailor messages to your audiences and address issues you think your audience cares about.
But his whole campaign is that there are two different cities here. And I’ve never liked that kind of division. The way to help those who are less fortunate is, number one, to attract more very fortunate people. They are the ones that pay the bills. The people that would get very badly hurt here if you drive out the very wealthy are the people he professes to try to help. Tearing people apart with this “two cities” thing doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s a destructive strategy for those you want to help the most. He’s a very populist, very left-wing guy, but this city is not two groups, and if to some extent it is, it’s one group paying for services for the other.
It’s a shame, because I’ve always thought he was a very smart guy.
On one level, Bloomberg misses an important point: a guy named Bloomberg doesn’t have to tell voters he’s Jewish, any more than Bill Thompson has to tell people he’s black or John Catsimatidis needs to tell people he’s Greek. But de Blasio, a white guy with an Italian surname, has to show people his family to make the point. Identity politics is a sad reality of politics, but we usually don’t see candidates remind voters of it quite so bluntly.
If the goal was to prevent Thompson from consolidating black voter support behind the only black candidate in the race, it succeeded wildly. The latest polls show de Blasio leading Thompson among black voters by double-digit margins: 37-26 according to Quinnipiac, 42-26 according to PPP, 39-25 according to Marist.
The Politics of Stop and Frisk
But de Blasio’s push is about more than just identity itself; the bigger element of the ad is the racial wedge issue of “stop and frisk.” Now, it’s important to stop here for a minute and do what Bloomberg and so many others fail to do, and define our terms, because talk about race in politics is chronically beset by confusion over words that have distinctly different meanings:
Racism is a set of ideas and beliefs, about the superiority or inferiority of different groups of people as defined by “race.” Of course, race itself is largely an artificial set of distinctions among people who are biologically different only in superficial ways, which is one reason (not the only one) why racism is idiotic nonsense. In practice, it’s less important what you believe than what you do – Abraham Lincoln and his generation of Republicans had many beliefs that would strike us today as racist, but what mattered was that they put their blood and treasure on the line to improve the lives of enslaved black people. That said, voters are rightly interested in the beliefs of political candidates, which are often more enduring than their promises. The problem with accusations of racism in politics is not that they’re unimportant but that they’re non-falsifiable: that is, there’s no type of evidence that can be presented to disprove them (indeed, citing any available type of evidence is usually regarded as additional proof that you’re actually a racist).
Racial discrimination is the real offense: treating people differently because of their race. That’s the case whether the discrimination is individual or whether it’s a systematic structure of discrimination like Jim Crow or apartheid. In theory, everybody’s against discrimination – except, you know, racial preferences in education and employment.
Disparate impact is treating people the same, but in a way that affects people within different racial groups differently. To use a recent and fairly mild example of this, some people have referred to a tax on tanning beds as “racist,” which is ridiculous; that said, for obvious reasons tanning is mostly a thing white people do, so if you’re against every possible form of disparate impact, that’s the kind of thing you end up crusading against.
Racialism is the habit of viewing everything through the lens of race, a terribly destructive habit but – of course – a hard one to shake when you attempt to write about New York City politics, or national politics in the Age of Obama.
Racial wedge issues, or race-baiting, or the race card, or any number of similar terms refer to pressing political issues or appeals that divide people along racial lines, and that’s where we get to what’s really at stake with the stop-and-frisk debate and how we talk about it.
The NYPD has – using crime data and statistics – conducted an increasingly active campaign of preventive law enforcement built around stopping individuals on the street for questioning (a tactic blessed by the Warren Court in 1968 in Terry v Ohio so long as there is “articulable suspicion”) and frisking them for weapons when deemed appropriate. Beat cops have been concentrated in high-crime areas. A lawsuit charging the NYPD with discrimination did not produce evidence of any policy of racial profiling (thus, no overt evidence of racial discrimination on a non-isolated basis), but relied on statistical evidence to argue (persuasively, to the district judge) disparate impact and an inference of discrimination. In a nutshell, the evidence showed that black New Yorkers were stopped in numbers far disproportionate to their numbers among the population – while the City noted that the demographics of people stopped matched well with the actual population of criminals (as determined both from arrests and victim reports). The evidence also showed that the NYPD was more likely to have “false positive” stops of blacks – ie, stops without a well-explained basis or a resulting arrest.
Bloomberg’s view of the stakes in the stop and frisk debate is blunt:
We have not racial-profiled, we’ve gone where the crime is….
The sad thing, which nobody’s willing to talk about, is that most of our crime is in two neighborhoods: southeast Bronx, central Brooklyn. All minority males 15 to 25. We’ve got to do something about that. And unless you get the guns out of their hands, you’re not going to ever be able to do anything.
The merits of the debate demand a more detailed look than space permits here; Slate’s Eric Posner explains why the decision got the wrong result:
Twelve percent of the stops resulted in an arrest or summons…So, police stopped black people more often than they stopped whites even though whites constitute a larger fraction of the city’s population; they used force against blacks more often; and yet they found weapons and contraband less often when they searched blacks than when they searched whites.
…Judge Scheindlin concluded that at least 200,000 stops…violated the Fourth Amendment because the officer checked boxes that indicated only generalized grounds for suspicion like “High Crime Area”; that the actual number of stops lacking individualized suspicion was probably far higher given that the police did not always complete the forms, and their form-filling was likely biased; that many more thousands of stops were unconstitutional because descriptions like “Furtive Movements” are too vague and subjective to demonstrate individualized suspicion; and that the police department pressured officers to make as many stops as possible and that many officers were poorly trained. Finally, the fact that only 12 percent of stops resulted in arrests or summonses (and this number probably overstates the true rate because charges were sometimes later dismissed, among other reasons) means that most people who were stopped were innocent of any crime.
Does this behavior violate the Fourth Amendment? Judge Scheindlin does not estimate the number of stops lacking individualized suspicion, and does not explain how many errors justify the striking down of a government policy. But any policy will predictably result in errors. The “reasonable suspicion” standard of Terry v. Ohio is far weaker than “beyond a reasonable doubt” (required for conviction) and “probable cause” (required for a search more intrusive than a frisk) – all of which necessarily result in a large number of false positives. Why doesn’t a 12 percent hit rate (or even lower hit rate) justify the considerably less intrusive tactic of briefly stopping a person and asking him questions? Judge Scheindlin does not identify the error threshold that distinguishes a valid police tactic from an invalid one.
She also ignores an important factor – the baseline criminality of the population subject to stops. If 12 percent of the relevant population engaged in criminal activity, then a hit rate of 12 percent would be no better than random – meaning that police who stop people randomly will be right 12 percent of the time. But if the rate of criminal activity is lower – say, 1 percent of the population – then a hit rate of 12 percent is impressive, and suggests that police do stop people only with reasonable suspicion and score misses only because criminality is so rare. Although Judge Scheindlin does not discuss this point or provide data, it seems likely that baseline criminality is much lower than she implicitly assumes.
There’s the rub: an ideal stop-and-frisk policy will never be error-free, and liberals of all people should know better than to denounce any government program that’s not error-free. The question is whether the errors are worth the benefits, and whether they are fairly distributed. As to the former, it’s hard to look at New York today compared to the Dinkins years and not want to give a lot of leeway to the NYPD’s nearly-miraculous record of crime reduction, a record few government programs in any field can match. As to the latter, an ideal policy will produce a rate of stops that looks like the actual criminal population – that’s not a Bayesian fallacy but a recognition that the distribution of errors should mirror the distribution of successes. If the impact on innocent black men is disproportionate, it’s because – unfortunately – they disproportionately live in neighborhoods victimized by black male criminals. Any effort to skew the numbers away from the proportions they would hold if they were 100% accurate, simply for purposes of spreading the pain to other racial groups, is not fairness, but its opposite.
For political purposes the question is less about the merits than about how it resonates with the voters – and despite being the major beneficiaries of lower crime rates, black voters are especially hostile to stop-and-frisk and particularly receptive to explicit political appeals arguing that it’s racist, discriminatory or at least racially unfair. Is it fair to raise a political issue that divides voters so explicitly on race? I’m no fan of racial politics, for a lot of reasons: playing the race card and gaining voter loyalty on racial lines is often a way of distracting from the real issues and insulating inept or corrupt politicians from accountability. But fundamentally, public policy issues like stop-and-frisk are important issues, just as things like prison furloughs or racial preferences are important issues the voters should be heard on. Liberals who spent two decades freaking out over Willie Horton and the famous Jesse Helms “hands” ad against Harvey Gantt have no moral standing to defend de Blasio’s use of a similar racial wedge issue – but even if de Blasio’s wrong on the issue and his supporters are hypocrites, that doesn’t mean it’s an illegitimate issue. Indeed, the parallel to the Helms ad is pretty obvious: in both cases, the candidate is appealing on explicit racial lines to the group that is asked to have innocent members pay the cost of a government social policy (the difference being that preferences are a true zero-sum issue, whereas lower crime rates benefit everyone). That may be ugly and it may be divisive, but at some point, it’s still the voters’ business.
The Dinkins Legacy
With de Blasio and the other Democratic candidates vowing to put an end to stop-and-frisk (all they’d need to do is drop the City’s appeal of the ruling), there’s little question that this election will now put at stake 20 years of thinking about law enforcement. The Wall Street Journal reports that it’s already taking its toll on the cops’ willingness to perform stops.
If all of this seems like de Blasio is trying to overturn 20 years of Giuliani/Bloomberg consensus on law enforcement – and all the crime-fighting success that entails – it’s no accident. De Blasio appears to be already looking down the road to make the general election against Lhota a referendum on relitigating the Dinkins-Giuliani races, as evidenced by his reaction to a report (denied by the Lhota camp – “David Johnson has zero affiliation with our campaign and no one on our campaign has ever heard of him”) that a Georgia pollster had been polling the public’s reaction to de Blasio’s interracial marriage:
“I did see the Lhota campaign try and distance themselves from it,” Mr. de Blasio replied when asked about the report. “I hope that’s true. Because I know who Joe Lhota worked for. He worked for Rudy Giuliani; he was the top deputy for Rudy Giuliani when Rudy was dividing this city as a matter of political strategy.”
Mr. de Blasio – who worked for Rudy Giuliani’s predecessor in the mayor’s office, David Dinkins – further warned Mr. Lhota that there would be a price to pay if he made racially divisive attack during the general election.
“I was in both campaigns, serving Mayor Dinkins fighting against Rudy Giuliani. We saw the worst appeals to racial bias and division. I hope – I hope! – Joe Lhota doesn’t think he’s going to replay that playbook…”
Given the relative public standing of Dinkins and Giuliani, de Blasio’s desire to refight those elections and tie himself and Lhota to Dinkins and Rudy seems mystifying. But by his own admission, de Blasio is a Dinkins guy all the way down:
[After working on his campaign as a volunteer coordinator, w]hen Mr. Dinkins won, Mr. de Blasio secured a job as a City Hall aide, a four-year position “foundational for everything I’ve done since then,” he said. Not only did Mr. de Blasio acquire a taste for politics, he made a series of instrumental contacts, including another young Dinkins aide named Chirlane McCray, whom he met in 1991 and eventually married.
A key element in de Blasio’s appeal to liberal activists and older African-Americans has been attempting to revive the reputation of Dinkins, New York’s first black mayor. The Dinkins mayoralty meant a great deal to de Blasio, who met his wife and came of age in local politics while both were working for the Dinkins administration. Dinkins, according to de Blasio, was, unbeknownst to the public, a staunch and effective crime fighter. His problem, argues de Blasio, was communications, not substance, though many who lived through the paralyzing fear of the Dinkins years would probably disagree.
Talking to Salon, de Blasio gives Dinkins credit for expanding the number of cops in New York City with the “Safe Streets, Safe City” program and for bringing the great crime fighter Bill Bratton to the fore. But neither is true.
Ironically, Dinkins himself – playing to caricature to the end – joined Charlie Rangel in endorsing Thompson rather than de Blasio.
Higher Taxes: What Can’t They Do?
The other area where de Blasio has stuck out is taxes: while the Democratic candidates have mostly been non-committal on property taxes, de Blasio pledges to raise income taxes on the City’s top tax bracket. There are two obvious problems with this, even beyond the usual problems with tax hikes. One is that these are the very same taxpayers who were already hit when President Obama raised the top federal tax rate by letting the Bush tax cuts expire in 2012, and when Andrew Cuomo raised the top state tax rate in 2011; going back to that same well could push the top marginal rate to a very bad part of the Laffer Curve. And second, for reasons of New York state law and economics, the City can’t raise income taxes without the permission of the State Legislature in Albany, and so de Blasio’s plan would be dead on arrival in the GOP-controlled State Senate.
That leaves the other big piece of de Blasio’s economic message, union organizing in the private sector, an approach that won him the endorsement of SEIU Local 1199, the largest union in the City:
Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, the front-runner in recent polls, has been most explicit about the role of the mayor in such efforts. Asked on Wednesday about his approach to private-sector unionization, he said elected officials “have to think like community organizers.”
“It’s clear the decline of the union movement in this country has correlated with the decline of the middle class,” Mr. de Blasio said. “And we have to strengthen the labor movement, particularly in the private sector if we’re going to have a chance of having a strong middle class again.”
Mr. de Blasio said that as public advocate he supported fast-food workers who want to unionize and telecom workers who battled their employers – causes also embraced by other Democratic candidates.
His community-organizer approach has come with predictable downsides. Though it’s gotten less attention than Liu’s campaign finance scandal, de Blasio is dogged by his own scandal, deriving from his support by the Working Families Party, an all-but-socialist third party (the WFP is closely akin to the PIRGs, ACORN and similar groups). The US Attorney’s Office launched an investigation into the WFP and de Blasio shortly after his 2009 election as Public Advocate, based on accusations during the campaign that the WFP was pervasively violating campaign finance rules. In 2011, the WFP paid $100,000 to settle state and federal lawsuits charging it had used a for-profit arm to provide below-cost services to campaigns as a facade to provide unreported contributions, something the City’s campaign finance board had warned de Blasio and other WFP-backed candidates about during the 2009 race. In 2012, a special prosecutor was appointed to dig further. Earlier this spring, the WFP itself went to court to fight subpoenas in the special prosecutor’s investigation.
(de Blasio’s other job after the Dinkins years was with Andrew Cuomo and Kirsten Gillibrand in the Clinton-era HUD, which started the nation down the road to the 2008 housing crisis. It’s not hard to see why de Blasio would be hesitant to tout that.)
The City’s 20 years without a Democratic Mayor is a vivid illustration of Robert Conquest’s First Law (“everyone is most conservative about the things he knows best”); even leading liberals like Josh Marshall aren’t willing to claim that de Blasio’s economic policies will actually work:
The interesting thing about de Blasio…is that he is running as an unabashed progressive….[F]or three decades rising economic inequality has been a cornerstone of the Democratic critique of the direction of the country. It’s been a theme of many campaigns. Yet most elected Democrats, particularly those in executive positions, have shied away from implementing the set of policies that might actually change or ameliorate the trend…I don’t know if those ‘things’ will work in the big picture. (That’s not just a throwaway line. I’m cautious and somewhat skeptical about our ability to shift these trends through policy….)…
How much you can really move the needle on these questions in a single city with two other states nearby is a very open question. But New York, given its size and the relative immobility of some of its major industries, is perhaps the only city where you could take a stab at it. So it will be interesting to see how this all plays out.
Where is the GOP in all of this? With a much more low-key 3-man race of its own, but really two-man:the most conservative candidate, George McDonald, has drawn positive notices everywhere he’s gone but hasn’t gained any traction and lacks the resources to get his message out. That leaves the unpronouncable against the unspellable: Lhota (the “H” is silent), endorsed by his old boss Rudy, against Catsimatidis, a Greek-born self-made grocery billionaire endorsed by George Pataki. Catsimatidis’ immigrant-makes-the-American-dream bio may be inspiring, but as a candidate he’s been prone to all the well-known pitfalls of clueless-rich-guy, consultant-meal-ticket GOP politics, and has made his closing argument that Lhota can’t win because he doesn’t have enough money. Catsimatidis also doesn’t sound like a guy who is willing to go for de Blasio’s jugular. Then again, the “Cats Man” did manage to put Lhota in the position of having to make this classic debate denial:
Lhota was forced to answer for a controversial statement he made to New York before Labor Day, when he said he would not have stopped train service to rescue beloved vagrant kittens August and Arthur. “I’m not the anti-kitten candidate,” Lhota insisted. “Let’s talk about the facts, let’s talk about the real facts here. First off, as you all know, I have pets. I love pets. I grew up with cats … We have thousands of cats, literally thousands of cats, that are in the subway system every single day, day and night, scurrying across the tracks and they don’t get killed.” The remark removed all doubt that lost and adorable cats would be left to fend for themselves under a Lhota administration.
We get daily mailers from both these guys, and the latest Lhota mailer has more pictures of Rudy than of Lhota; at the end of the day, while Lhota knows he needs Democratic votes to win, he can’t avoid the shadow of his old boss and shouldn’t try. Lhota isn’t a perfect fit for conservatives (given his stances on abortion and same-sex marriage) or libertarians, given his support for stop-and-frisk, but he’s easily the best thing GOP voters could have hoped for after Police Commissioner Ray Kelly declined to run. Matt Welch of Reason Magazine argues that Lhota would actually have something to offer to fans of smaller government; as Lhota told the NY Post:
Asked how he differs from Bloomberg, Lhota cites health initiatives in general and Bloomberg’s bid to bar sales of super-sized soda in particular.
“I believe in many of the things that Mike has done, but I believe we should be educating the public before we ban things.
“The role of government is to steer us in the right direction,” he said, “not do all the work for us.”
Tomorrow, we find out if this three-ring circus is finally ready to reduce to a two-man race.
RealClearPolitics election analyst Sean Trende has come under coordinated red-hot rhetorical fire from the Left for his thesis that one of the major causes of Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012 was that a disproportionate number of white voters – mostly downscale whites outside the South – stayed home. Much of the criticism of Trende’s thesis is based on deliberately misreading his policy prescriptions – but it’s also based on a simpler failure to grasp the basic math behind his calculations. Like any exercise in reading exit polls and census data, Trende’s assumptions (which he lays out explicitly) can be critiqued by people who are serious about understanding the issue; there are no definitive answers in this area other than final vote counts. But the vehemence directed at Trende’s number-crunching suggests a Democratic establishment that fears honest debate intruding in its narrative of an inevitable, permanent Democratic majority built on a permanently racially polarized electorate.
Given the intense and growing racial polarization of the Obama-era electorate, it is sadly necessary to look at the race of voters to make sense of what happened in 2012 and what it says about the two parties’ coalitions going forward; on this, analysts on all sides agree. Indeed, those who argue for a long-term Democratic majority do so primarily on the basis of maintenance of current levels of racial division. It is also agreed among all analysts that turnout was down in 2012 from 2008; the raw numbers show that about 2.2 million fewer people voted, while the population grew. The issue is how to measure the rates of turnout among each racial group.
Who The Missing Voters Were
Trende’s original thesis was based on the initial exit polls released immediately after the election as compared to Census Bureau population estimates, and developed in a four part series beginning last month. Naturally, given the nature of the data sets involved, his numbers changed as more precise sources of data became available. He conducted a simple five-step exercise:
1. Look at voter turnout – total and by race – in the 2008 election;
2. Look at Census data to determine the growth of eligible voters in each racial category;
3. Project what the 2012 electorate would have looked like if each category turned out at the same rates as in 2008, but adjusted for the 2012 population;
4. Look at voter turnout – total and by race – in the 2012 election;
5. Compare Step 3 to Step 4 to determine how each group’s rates of turnout changed from 2008 to 2012.
This is not a controversial methodology; total population growth and total election turnout are hard data, and the only real issues are which of various Census reports you use to compute population growth by racial category, and which of various election sources you use to compute turnout by racial group. With a little cutting and pasting to combine his two charts, here is what Trende’s June analysis concluded:
In other words, compared to 2008 levels of turnout, white voter turnout was down far more than non-white voter turnout (6.2% vs 3.8% for black voters and 1.6% for Hispanic voters), and there were approximately 6 million “missing white voters,” as compared to about 871,000 black and Hispanic voters. Trende also finds about 1.3 million missing “other” voters (“other” being mainly mixed-race voters, as well as Native American, South Asian, and other groups – not necessarily a bloc as heavily Democratic as black or Hispanic voters). The “other” group is a statistically significant part of the analysis, but, as Trende’s later analysis shows, that last figure may be an anomaly due largely to mathematical rounding issues, without which the number of “missing” non-white voters in total drops in half when you use later, more accurate data – more on that below.
There is one error in Trende’s computation, which brings his total short of the 129.2 million votes cast in 2012, and that’s Asian voters (who have broken heavily Democratic in recent elections after being a GOP voting bloc in the Reagan-HW Bush years). Trende finds about 70,000 Asian voters missing, when in fact Asian turnout was up enough that he should be showing about 575,000 extra Asian voters (I contacted Trende and he confirmed this). Asian voters are an oft-overlooked and growing piece of the puzzle, and they still turn out in very, very low numbers compared to their (still-small) share of the US population, but reaching out to them is an important consideration going forward. In any event, when you adjust for the proper counting of Asian voters, you find that it actually strengthens Trende’s thesis that white voter turnout was down relative to turnout of the major non-white voting blocs.
Where The Missing Voters Were
Trende also produced a map showing where the missing voters were most likely to be found, although the map can’t break them out by race; the areas in blue on the map represent the biggest drops in turnout, red represents growth in turnout compared to population growth.
As you can see from the map, a good number of the “missing” voters were in uncontested states like New York and Oklahoma where they would not have made a difference. And the big chunks of deep blue in New Mexico, Oklahoma and South Dakota (as well as the heavy dropoff in turnout in Alaska, not shown on the map) are consistent with a dramatic decline in Native American voter turnout.
But a significant number of others were in Pennsylvania (Obama by 309,840 votes out of 5.75 million cast), Ohio (Obama by 166,272 votes out of 5.59 million cast), Michigan (Obama by 449,313 votes out of 4.74 million cast), and Minnesota (Obama by 225,942 votes out of 2.94 million cast). This is consistent with Trende’s conclusion that – while these voters were not, in and of themselves, the cause of Romney’s loss – they were a contributing factor large enough to consider, and one that may loom even larger in a closer future contest between a better Republican candidate and a Democrat who has less visceral appeal to non-white voters. (The lower turnout throughout the Northeast also surely reflects the influence of Hurricane Sandy).
The White-Voter Path To GOP Victory
Later in his series, Trende moved on to a second thesis: that it’s possible – not likely, but possible – that depending how turnout develops (eg, if African-American turnout and voting patterns revert to pre-Obama levels), that the GOP could start winning national elections on the basis of winning a growing share of the white vote without eroding the Democrats’ hold on non-white voters. As Trende notes, while this scenario requires some leaps from where we stand today, white voters have been trending gradually more Republican:
Democrats liked to mock the GOP as the “Party of White People” after the 2012 elections. But from a purely electoral perspective, that’s not a terrible thing to be. Even with present population projections, there are likely to be a lot of non-Hispanic whites in this country for a very long time. Relatively slight changes among their voting habits can forestall massive changes among the non-white population for a very long while. The very white baby boom generation is just hitting retirement age, and younger whites, while unsurprisingly more Democratic than the baby boomers (who, you may recall, supported George McGovern), still voted for Romney overall.
Nowhere does Trende argue for the GOP to turn up its nose at Hispanic outreach, or counsel a harder line on immigration; rather, he argues simply that there are enough different variables that it’s unwise to write off the GOP just yet on the basis of mathematical and demographic determinism, even if the GOP does defeat the current iteration of “comprehensive immigration reform.” There is more than one way to build a winning electoral coalition.
The main salvo against Trende can be found in a belligerent ThinkProgress blog post by Ruy Teixeira and Alan Abramowitz entitled, “No, Republicans, ‘Missing’ White Voters Won’t Save You.” Stripping away the rhetorical overkill (“GOP phone home! Your missing white voters have been found, and it turns out they weren’t really missing”), the main point of contention is that Teixeira and Abramowitz simply reject the notion that turnout was down at differential rates:
Trende was using an estimate of around 2.7 million additional eligible whites between 2008 and 2012. That’s wrong: Census data show an increase of only 1.5 million white eligibles….[U]sing Census data on eligible voters plus exit poll data on shares of votes by race, we calculate that turnout went down by about equal amounts among white and minority voters (3.4 and 3.2 percentage points, respectively).
This attack on Trende was predictably amplified by Paul Krugman, who doesn’t seem to have even read Trende’s essays, calling them a “Whiter Shade of Fail”; Krugman concludes on the basis of reading the ThinkProgress blog post that “the missing-white-voter story is a myth.” (Josh Marshall takes a similar line).
But careful reading is your friend. And a careful reading shows why Teixeira and Abramowitz are long on vitriol – because they are short on trustworthy data.
The immediate problem here is that Teixeira and Abramowitz don’t show their work to explain how they come up with these percentages, so a certain amount of deductive detective work is required to figure out what they did (not making your computations transparent is generally not a sign of confidence in your data). From the links in their post, it appears that the main issue is that they and Trende are using different Census Bureau reports for their data. Also, critically, Teixeira and Abramowitz don’t break out turnout among the component elements of “non-white” voters, who they treat as a monolithic mass.
The CPS Bait and Switch
As Trende observes, Teixeira and Abramowitz “look at a different data set — the CPS [Current Population Survey] data,” a monthly survey in which people self-report employment data and (after the election) self-reported voting participation. Trende, by contrast, used Census Bureau population estimates derived from the actual 2010 Census.
If you take it at face value, however, the CPS survey has a serious flaw that should be obvious even to a Nobel Prize winner:
[T]he CPS data conclude that there were 1.4 million more Hispanics who voted in 2012 than in 2008, 547,000 more Asians, 1.7 million more blacks, and 2 million fewer whites. That works out to a total of 1.8 million more votes cast in 2012 than 2008, according to the CPS survey.
But if there is one thing that we absolutely know about 2012, beyond any reasonable doubt, it is that turnout actually dropped from 2008….So, the CPS data say that there were around 4 million more votes cast in 2012 than was actually the case.
In short: the CPS turnout figures cannot possibly be correct. It’s like a preseason baseball prediction where the whole league is over .500. It’s mathematically impossible. Now, it’s certainly possible that CPS is wrong proportionally – that is, that it overreported the turnout of all groups equally. It’s also certainly possible that it’s not proportionate. But there’s no way from looking at CPS alone to know, so relying on it as an authoritative source without caveat or explanation is a very questionable choice.
Teixeira and Abramowitz stake their whole argument on the CPS – but then they use it selectively. As noted above, the actual turnout figures produced by CPS support the idea that white turnout was down in absolute terms, while black, Hispanic and Asian turnout was up. If they broke these groups out individually, as they appear in the CPS data itself, that would destroy their entire argument that turnout was down equally across all groups. So they do two things to cover their tracks. One is to clump these groups together with “other” non-whites; but as Trende notes, “the large mass of missing ‘other’ voters is probably a rounding issue. This isn’t a minor point; those voters represent 60 percent of all the non-whites that Teixeira and Abramowitz are discussing.”
Second, as Trende demonstrates, Teixeira and Abramowitz are only able to use the CPS data to their advantage by mixing and matching it with other sources (specifically, exit polls) – if you use only the CPS, “the CPS data actually show a larger decline in the white vote than do the exit polls.” (Trende, because he’s using non-election-related Census data, has to use the exit polls for his turnout figures – but if Teixeira and Abramowitz think CPS is the more reliable source, why do they avoid using it to compute turnout?)
There is no perfect answer to these questions. The Census is the best possible population figure, but the interstitial estimates involve some inherent guesswork. Exit polls may be biased in who answers them, and the CPS is obviously biased to over-report voting and may be biased in who over-reports; we can’t know. (One difference being that exit poll respondents don’t know who won the election when they respond; CPS respondents do, so there may be a possible bias towards overreporting by non-voting supporters of the winner. But that’s speculation.) What we do know is that Trende has put his methodological choices on the table and they are reasonable ones; Teixeira and Abramowitz have not, nor offered any defense for their methods, nor explained how they can square their theory of perfectly proportional decline in turnout across groups with the fact that the very source they use shows the opposite. Under those circumstances, it’s not hard to decide who to trust.
The Wider Universe of Missing Voters
For all the heat over Trende’s computations, it should not be forgotten that the “missing white voters” are only the difference in turnout patterns between 2008 and 2012 – both elections in which uninspiring and poorly-organized GOP campaigns faced off against Barack Obama (a uniquely inspiring figure to non-white voters due to his status as the first non-white President), and the first of which – the baseline – already involved a uniquely bad political environment for Republicans. In fact, voter turnout is a volatile variable that changes from one election to another; while it can be useful to perform an exercise like Trende’s, it requires a serious failure of imagination to regard the 2008 and 2012 turnout environments as the outer boundaries of potential voter turnout.
How many voters are “missing” depends very much what your baseline is – a baseline that never stops moving. It’s debatable exactly how many eligible voters there are at any given time (different sources use different measurements) but consider that Michael McDonald of George Mason University (on whom Teixeira and Abramowitz rely) figures a “voting eligible population” of 221,925,820 in 2012 – which means that compared to the entire universe of eligible voters, there weren’t six or eight million missing voters, there were 92.7 million missing voters, 40% more than the total that voted for Obama. On the other hand, McDonald calculates that, while 58.2% of eligible voters voted in 2012, only 51.7% voted in 1996 when Bill Clinton ran for re-election. If you take McDonald’s figures and use 1996, the last election with an incumbent Democrat on the ballot two years after a GOP rout in the Congressional midterms, as your baseline, suddenly you’re not talking about missing voters at all – you’re asking where 8.4 million extra voters came from.
I do not, of course, mean to suggest that there were 92 million voters that either campaign could reasonably have expected to turn out. My point is, the dropoff of some 6 million eligible white voters and 1.6 million eligible non-white voters as compared to the 2008 baseline is just one segment of a much broader universe of eligible non-voters, some of whom will doubtless be turned out by the winning presidential campaign in 2016 or 2020, just as some of the folks who turned out for Obama, Romney or McCain will surely drop out of the process in the next two elections even if they remain eligible voters. Turnout as a whole can be volatile over time, as McDonald’s estimates show:
Turnout rates dropped as more previously ineligible voters entered the system, particularly after the voting age was reduced; it spiked in 1992 when Ross Perot’s campaign offered an outlet to voters unhappy with both parties, and again in 2004 and 2008 as the Bush and Obama campaigns found distinctly different paths to bring previously disaffected voters to the polls. The increasing volatility of turnout rates in recent years suggests that improvements in technology, combined with changes in voting practices (e.g., early voting) may be improving campaigns’ ability to locate new voters. And there’s a second, equally important piece of the puzzle that I frequently stress: the two parties’ bases, turnout methods and reasons for appealing to voters are asymmetrical. Look at this chart of the vote totals of the Democratic and Republican tickets in presidential races between 1976 and 2012:
The Democrat vote grew steadily year to year throughout this period, consistent with the view (implicit in all of Teixeira’s analyses and those who follow a similar demographics-are-everything approach) that the Democrats are mainly a collection of interest groups that grow with the populations they represent. The Republican vote, by contrast, was much more volatile (and susceptible to being drawn off by dissenters like Perot), reflecting the fact that Republicans are a more ideological party and therefore more dependent on the issue environment (particularly the presence of national security as a major issue) and the quality of the party’s candidate and platform to draw votes. Candidates and campaigns still matter, and matter more to Republicans. It’s entirely plausible to think the GOP will run better candidates and better campaigns in the future – that the McCain and Romney campaigns were not the best of all possible Republican campaigns.
Specifically, we are not so far removed from George W. Bush and his Karl Rove-led political operation figuring out how to increase the GOP vote from 39 million voters in 1992 and 1996 to 50 million in 2000 and 62 million in 2004, a feat that astounded liberal observers at the time and upended conventional wisdom that the GOP could only succeed in a low-turnout environment. The 2004 election came after Ruy Teixeira and John Judis had published their “Emerging Democratic Majority” book in 2002, and Teixeira spent the 2004 election arguing so vociferously that the polls were overestimating Republican turnout that Mickey Kaus acidly remarked the day after the election “Bush 51, Kerry 48: Pollster Ruy Teixeira demands that these raw numbers be weighted to reflect party I.D.!”
Teixeira wasn’t the first or last election analyst to assume that dramatic changes in the turnout environment were implausible; many observers on the right, myself and Trende included, spent a good deal of 2012 questioning how Obama could recreate the dramatic shift away from 2004’s turnout that we saw in 2008. The point here is the danger of assuming that present trends will continue unabated forever.
In short, we’re discussing the current margins – of the 92.7 million eligible voters who passed on the Obama-Romney contest, around 9% of those would have shown up at 2008 levels of turnout; of the 129.2 million who did vote, around 6% of those would have stayed home at 1996 levels of turnout. But until we run the next election, we don’t know how far each side can push those margins, or with which populations of eligible but not certain voters. The history of American politics suggests that we have not seen the last new development that will surprise observers of the political scene.
Ruy Teixeira’s Methods Seem Familiar
Reading through Texiera’s flailing assault on Trende, I felt a strange sense of deja vu – because I had read this before, in Teixeira’s review of Jonathan Last’s excellent book What to Expect When No One’s Expecting. And as with his dismissal of Trende, Teixeira’s review was greeted by the usual head-nodders on the Left as an excuse not to deal with Last’s arguments but rather dismiss them out of hand.
Last’s book develops his argument that birth rates in the United States and around the world are falling to a point that threatens a declining population, that many changes in society, economics and government can flow from such a demographic shift, and that a lot of these could be very, very bad. Last’s book notes that Hispanics (particularly recent arrivals to the U.S.) have been the only major group having enough children to keep the United States from falling below “replacement level” birthrates, but that trends among Hispanics suggest that they may also fall back towards the rest of the U.S. population over time. Finally, he argues that, while immigration has helped the U.S. stave off the more dire declines in population faced by countries like Japan, Russia and Southern Europe, there are downsides to relying too heavily on new immigrants to replace the native-born population, and reasons (especially given Mexican birthrates) to suspect that a steady supply of immigrants may dry up down the road.
Teixeira applies the same rhetorical sledgehammer to Last’s carefully-researched, copiously footnoted and even-handedly argued book that he deployed against Trende: “If Last’s claims sound hysterical and overwrought, that is because they are….If Last’s claims about the impending population crash are fanciful, his claim that fertility decline will lead to economic collapse is completely ridiculous.” But as with his attack on Trende, Teixeira’s assertions don’t stand up well under scrutiny.
To begin with, Teixeira’s review of the book is astoundingly parochial: something like half of the book and scores of its examples (both anecdote and country-level data) look at birthrates around the world and in history, and a good deal of Last’s argument addresses how the U.S. will be impacted by demographic changes in other countries, some of them very dramatically underway. But aside from one hand-waving reference to UN projections (more on which below) and a reference (which Teixeira refuses to engage) to Last’s reliance on slowing Mexican population growth, Teixeira completely ignores everything happening outside the United States and all the book’s discussion of history as an example.
Teixeira accuses Last of being “truly the man with a hammer who sees nails everywhere,” yet the entirety of his critique of Last’s solutions is to ask, “why not support immigration reform, as well as generally higher immigration levels?” and accuse him of being an immigration restrictionist who “just isn’t very interested in seeing more immigrants in the country.” It seems Teixeira is the one who only has a hammer, given that the argument for more immigration and growing political power for Democratic-leaning Hispanics is also the entirety of his attack on Trende, his attack on the 2004 polls and the 2002 book that made his name. As Last noted in response, if you actually read the book, you’d see that Last is not arguing against more immigration, just explaining why it’s not the whole answer to every problem.
As for number-crunching, Teixeira didn’t even bother to grapple with Last’s marshalling and sifting of the demographic data; he just appeals to authority:
The Census Bureau does project that the fertility rate will diminish, but only by a modest .09 over the next 50 years. And while the fertility rate is likely to remain below the replacement rate for the next 50 years, the Census Bureau expects us to add another 100 million people by 2060 due to immigration and “demographic momentum.” (Despite sub-replacement fertility rates, a relatively large proportion of the population will be in prime reproductive years for decades to come.) So much for population collapse.
Last is similarly off base in his projections for the rest of the world. He sees global population decline…The U.N. Population Division begs to differ. According to their 2010 projections, the countries with the lowest fertility rates today – typically, more developed countries – should see fertility rates rise somewhat over the century and converge with rates in less developed countries.
At least this time, Teixeira looked at what the Census Bureau had to say. But he offers no reason why we would expect declining fertility rates to reverse themselves down the road, and while Last explains the implausibility of the UN’s 2010 projection (which represented an abrupt and not credibly explained about-face from its prior stance), Teixeira incuriously accepts it at face value and then asserts these inherently speculative projections as fact. Last himself admits that many of the future projections involve uncertainty – but the past and current trends are hard facts. As Last notes, this is far from the only area in which Teixiera just hand-waves whole detailed sections of the book – unlike Teixeira, Last actually considers the experiences of other countries to see what works and what does not, rather than just blithely assuming that demographic trends will reverse themselves of their own accord.
Liberal pundits and Democratic activists – and the line between the two can be hard to locate – have increasingly overinvested in two excuses for insulating themselves in a bubble: that no data can possibly support any arguments by analysts on the Right, who can be dismissed with an ad hominem, a quick hand-wave and a lot of nodding, and that demographics alone will deliver them a permanent electoral majority without the need for their side to actually win any more arguments. These are hazardous trends, and the imbalance between Teixeira’s rhetoric in dealing with pundits like Trende and Last and the actual substance of his critiques is an illustration of the dangers of the need to sustain this illusion at all costs to a writer’s own credibility.
Polls are back in the news, with the release of four public polls and an internal Gabriel Gomez campaign poll in the June 25 Massachusetts special Senate election to replace John Kerry. 3 of the 4 public polls show Ed Markey with a distinct but still surmountable lead, an average of 6 points; the fourth shows him up by 17 and looks like an outlier, adding 2.7 points by itself to Markey’s lead in the RCP average. The Gomez campaign’s internal poll shows Markey by 3; if you use the general rule of thumb that a campaign conducts multiple internal polls and will only release its most favorable internal, that’s consistent with this currently being a 5-7 point race. Which is not a bad place for a Republican to be in Massachusetts five weeks before the election – it gives Gomez a puncher’s chance in a special election – although you’d clearly still put better than 50/50 odds on Markey.
The closest public poll so far was put out by progressive Democratic pollsters PPP; its first poll of the race has Markey up by 4, 44-40. Let’s take a look at how PPP polled the last Senate race in Massachusetts, the 2012 race between Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren, which Warren ultimately won 54-46. That race may be less predictive of this one than the 2010 special election between Brown and Martha Coakley (in which PPP was one of the more reliable pollsters), but it’s interesting as an exercise in examining how PPP samples the electorate.
This is the third and final part of my three-part polling post-mortem. Part I here looks at the national and state polls, and Part II at the likely voter screens and the electorate.
V. Polls vs. Non-Poll Tools
One of my premises in reviewing projections of turnout was that other items of information besides the polls were worth reviewing. Many of these same indicators favoring Romney in 2012 had forecast the rise of Obama in 2008. Why did so many of them prove useless or misleading?
The Bush era saw a modern-historic rise in the partisan component of the electorate, i.e., the percentage of votes that were either Democrats voting Democrat or Republicans voting Republican – and while the partisan component has become more Democratic, the trend has not significantly abated under Obama:
As long as that remains the case, knowing the partisan composition of the electorate remains critical. Yet non-poll data on the topic proved elusive. The data point I stressed that failed most spectacularly was the Rasmussen and Gallup surveys of party ID. I don’t regret looking at those; they had a proven track record in the past of being right, and I like looking at data that has a proven track record in the past of being right. Rasmussen’s surveys had been right in presidential and non-presidential election years, in years before and during/after the rise of Obama, and had never before overstated GOP turnout. And the Rasmussen survey in particular is based on an enormous sample of something like 15,000 interviews a month. But both proved to be way off the mark: Gallup had the electorate at R+1, Rasmussen’s final survey R+6. Despite their record of accuracy before 2012, I will almost certainly put no stock in those surveys again. It really was different this time.
On the other hand, I still stand by my scorn for TPM’s party ID survey average; it was useless slop that failed once again. It got 2010 wrong, and 2012 too: even if you adjust the numbers upward proportionally from the 90.7% of the population it purported to survey, it projects a D+8 electorate of D 36/R 28/I 36, when the exits told us it was D 38/R 32/I 30. The survey assumed significantly more independent voters than Republican voters, but Republicans outnumbered independents at the polls, just as they have every year since 1980.
That said, as in 2008 and unlike in the off-year electorate of 2010, Republicans were at a recent-historically low share of the vote relative to independents, suggesting that their turnout problem was not solely one of high Democratic turnout – this chart computes the GOP share of (Republicans+Independents), and the Democratic share of (Democrats+Independents), so as to avoid letting one party’s turnout cloud estimates of the other’s:
No two ways about it: there were not enough Republicans at the polls. The question for the GOP going forward is how to bring the people who stayed home or left the party back into the fold and the voting booth.
Then there’s voter registrations; I relied on a bunch of studies showing that Democrats were registering new voters at a slower rate than 2008 and suffering a net decline in voter registration in key battleground states, while Republican registrations were up slightly and independent registrations were up dramatically. This hard data told the same story as the national party ID surveys and the voter enthusiasm self-reporting. While Democrats said they could just turn out the voters they’d registered in 2008, I was skeptical on two grounds: voters age 22-25 were likely to have moved since 2008, and voters age 18-21 could not have been registered then.
I may have overrated these problems. It would seem that OFA’s digital outreach must have kept a handle on transient recent college grads. And we have yet to see final voter-registration figures; while 2008 featured yearlong registration drives, it’s still possible that the Obama campaign just registered a whole lot of people in October and/or the day they voted. I’ll be very surprised if we do not see, in the data that comes out after the fact, a surge in last-minute registrations.
There was also early voting and absentee ballot data; I didn’t have systematic data, but lots and lots of the individual hard-data points, especially from Colorado and Ohio, showed that early voting and absentee ballot requests were up in Republican areas or among registered Republicans, and down with Democrats, at least compared to 2008. Many of these data points came from official state records; they were not just the usual vaporous campaign emissions about how many doors they knocked on. Yet again, all this data turned out to be misleading. For example, the Colorado Secretary of State at one point was showing an R+2 electorate in the state after 62% of the state had voted early. Coming from official records, that seemed to me a non-crazy reason to think the electorate would be pretty good for the GOP, given that early voting is more of a Democratic strength in most states. Exit polls showed the Colorado electorate ended up D+4.
Relatedly, one of the realities the GOP has to come to grips with is the extent to which early voting has changed both the process of turning out voters and the process of polling even as compared to a decade ago – early voting makes it easier to turn out less-motivated voters, but also harder to use traditional tools to figure out who will turn out. Many of the polls in October hugely oversampled early voters (you’d get samples that were around 40% early voters when about 20% of the state, according to official records, had voted early) – but of course, with voter turnout overall below 60% of the voting-age population, you probably do need to oversample people who you now know are 100% certain to vote, if your sample is going to reflect final turnout. I suspect that at least in some states, the polls taking a turn towards Obama at the end reflected, not a change in public opinion, but a change in the poll samples as more of Obama’s early vote got locked in. That suggests that past patterns in how the polls moved at the end of a race in the days before early voting may be a poor guide to how they will move in years to come.
Another indicator I factored in, from within the polls, was polls of self-reported voter enthusiasm. Many, many polls reported GOP voters more enthusiastic about voting. Such polls have been indicative of an “enthusiasm gap” borne out on Election Day in the past, including in 2010; they were not this time. Ditto the less scientific indicator of the large, enthusiastic crowds Romney and Ryan drew on the trail. By contrast, one thing I didn’t put a ton of stock in, small-dollar donations, favored Obama, and in retrospect it was probably a sign of the effectiveness of his digital outreach (the much-mocked three-a-day fundraising emails), and a proxy for real base enthusiasm just as it had been for Bush in 2004. Romney never really did particularly well with small donors.
I also failed to consider that Dick Morris predicted a Romney win, which should have set the probability of a Romney win to zero all by itself.
All of which does make me wonder whether, despite my longstanding philosophy of wanting to use external sources as a sanity check on the polls, there are any left we can trust. If relative or in some cases absolute advantages in voter registration, early voting, absentee balloting, party identification, and self-reported voter enthusiasm are not worth anything, we may be stuck trusting the pollsters’ hunches – and may be blindsided the next time they are wrong.
VI. Presidential vs. Off Year Polling
Many of us quite reasonably thought that 2010 proved the GOP had recovered from its 2006 and 2008 wipeouts, and that we should expect an electorate in 2012 that looked at least as much like 2010 as like 2008; at a minimum, a midway point between the two, which would be D+3.5. After all, 2010 was the more recent sample, and both parties had contested it vigorously. But one of the real emerging lessons of 2012 is that we are in an age where turnout in mid-term elections is genuinely not predictive of the electorate that will show up in a presidential election, and vice versa. As with many things in the Age of Obama, it remains to be seen if this effect will persist after Obama is gone – but it is clearly with us now, and suggests both that (1) Democrats on the ballot in 2014 should not count on the 2012 electorate showing up and (2) even a strongly Republican-tilted electorate in 2014, if one resurfaces, will not tell us much about the 2016 electorate. Right now, I would not want to be Mark Warner facing the electorate that voted in Bob McDonnell by 19 points, or Ron Johnson facing the electorate that re-upped Obama by 7.
This chart shows each party’s swing between the off year elections and the prior and subsequent general election:
As you can see, Republican turnout in the era from 1984 to 2000 was extremely steady every two years, in both general and off-year elections, around 35% of the vote. Democrats would go up and down relative to independents, but the GOP share was a constant. But since 2000, that has fluctuated much more wildly, with high GOP turnout in the 2002, 2004 and 2010 elections and low turnout in 2006, 2008 and 2012. That volatility is even higher than the volatility of the Democrats. What it suggests is, more or less, that there are a lot more casual Democratic voters than casual Republican voters – the GOP’s determined base turns out rain or shine every two years except in a real washout like 2006, but the extra people who come out only every four years are (at present) composed more heavily of Democrats. That’s terrible news if you’re a Democratic candidate for Senator or Governor in 2014 (even aside from the usual carnage that attends a president’s sixth-year elections), but it’s also frightening news for Republicans considering the long-term strength of the party.
VII. Models vs. Averages
My criticism, and that of other informed skeptics on the Right, of Nate Silver’s 538 model was on three grounds. First, most of the major controversies in this election cycle centered around how much faith to place in the state polling averages, a debate for now largely resolved in favor of the state polling averages. Since the 538 model runs on those averages, it successfully called the election – but so did the averages themselves, without the assistance of the model.
Second, the model has been oversold. This really has nothing to do with the model itself, and everything to do with making people understand that it was only as good as its inputs. That criticism still stands: as noted in Part II, the polls had to make some very unscientific adjustments to keep up with the electorate this year, and there are significant reasons to question their ability to do so in the future. If the pollsters’ “hunches” are wrong next time, the model contains no mechanism to avoid failing just as it has failed in virtually every past instance where the state polls were wrong. If you view the 538 model as a way of aggregating imperfect inputs – like the RCP average, but with some additional bells and whistles – you can get value from it as an informed consumer. If you view it as an infallible Oracle to be obeyed, you are likely to sooner or later be disappointed.
Third, the most questionable part of the model is its projections of the likelihood of how late-deciding voters will break, which by definition is the part not anchored to the polls. (You can read Nate Silver’s breakdown of past incumbent-challenger races here, and while as he notes it suffers from the usual small-sample-size problems of any presidential poll analysis, you can also see that the challenger has traditionally tended to gain more ground than the incumbent as compared to his standing in the October polls). This is an area where others in this field have done more work than I have, so I won’t repeat the controversies, but one of my prior concerns was Ted Frank’s point that the 538 model was placing heavy emphasis on the 2000 election in projecting that voters were less likely to break against an incumbent party when the Democrats are in office than the Republicans. Ted’s point was that Bush’s DUI story was an unusual end-of-race event not likely to recur here (I had a good deal of confidence that Mitt Romney had never been busted for DUI). But we did, yet again, have an end-of-the-race late-October surprise, in the form of Hurricane Sandy, and we did, yet again, have voters break towards Obama right at the end. Unless you place a lot of value on the ability of the media to spin a late-breaking story in the Democrats’ favor, however (not a factor in Bush’s case, since the story was self-explanatory), it’s hard to see how you build a credible mathematical model that assumes this sort of thing will happen with regularity.
The model’s usefulness in presidential polling is also not necessarily translatable to other races, especially in off-years when the electorate is not as predictable. There was no running 538 forecast this year, at all, for the Democrats’ chances of re-taking the House (which they did not). In 2010, the 538 forecast in August 2010 gave Republicans only around a 60 percent chance of taking the House, and still had Democrats with about a 20% chance of holding their House majority as late as Election Day – a much higher chance than the model gave Romney of winning this year. But of course, the Democrats got shellacked in a landslide, far worse by historic House standards than Romney’s loss by historic presidential standards.
As to the parts of the 538 model that go beyond just plugging in the state poll averages, I continue to take Bill James’ view of expert and expertise:
“[G]etting the answers right” had almost nothing to do with the success of my career. My reputation is based entirely on finding the right questions to ask – that is, in finding questions that have objective answers, but to which no one happens to know what the objective answer is…When I do that, it makes almost no difference whether I get the answer right, or whether I get it a little bit wrong. Of course I do my very best to get the answers right, out of pride and caution, but it doesn’t actually matter.
Because if I don’t get the answer right, somebody else will. It is called “science.”
…[T]he scientific method has been the greatest ally of my career. Basically, what I know about the scientific method would fit onto a bumper sticker, and, that being the case, I might as well read you the bumper sticker. We design tests to see whether an assertion is compatible or incompatible with the evidence. When you do that, someone else will always figure out some way to do another test, and a better test. When that happens, it is my responsibility to acknowledge that the other person’s research is better than mine or is an advancement from mine. What is necessary to the advancement of knowledge, then, is humility – the capacity to recognize that other people have accomplished something that I have not been able to accomplish. That, then, is the bumper sticker: what is necessary to the advancement of knowledge is humility.
When you go to an expert and you say that, “I don’t think that what you are saying is true,” that will be perceived as arrogance. Who are you to challenge the experts? But it is not arrogance, at all; it is grounded in the understanding that we are all floating in a vast sea of ignorance, and that much of what we all believe to be true will later be shown to be nonsense. To recognize this is not arrogance; it is humility.
When I was in Elementary School in the early 1960s, our principal was fond of telling us that, when he was a young man just after World War One, he took a college chemistry class, in which the professor told the students that they were studying science at the ideal time, because all of the important discoveries had been made now. Everything that there was to be known about chemistry or biology or physics, he suggested, was pretty much known now.
I add to that my own prior view of experts:
[T]he expert who learns that the recitation of jargon and the appeal to authority effectively exempts him from moral or social scrutiny has made the most dangerous discovery known to man: the ability to get away with virtually anything. Because if people will let you talk your way into money and influence with good science on the grounds that they do not understand it or have no right to obstruct it, what is to stop the expert from using bad science from accomplishing the same end, if they layman isn’t equipped to tell the difference between the two?
We have not arrived now at the End of History or the End of Science. The polling controversies of past election cycles forced pollsters and poll analysts to learn important lessons. The polling controversies of this election cycle have, in my view, done the same. I wish my conclusions had carried the day this time, but I make no apology for challenging assumptions that were being treated as Holy Writ by liberals merely because, on this occasion, those assumptions proved correct. That’s what I often do in my day job as a lawyer, in which I often encounter two contending experts with irreconcilable conclusions: probe their competing assumptions to expose what each side’s conclusions assume to be true. There will always be a role for a Socrates, asking well-compensated analysts and pundits to explain themselves and put their assumptions on the line to be judged. The day we stop asking those questions is the day we let the “experts” know they can get away with anything just by hanging some numbers on it.
For the reasons explained in Part II, the old model of what kind of voter represents the swinging center of the electorate didn’t work in 2012 – in fact, the center wasn’t the decisive factor at all, but rather the huge margins in one corner of the electorate matched against a party that saw falling turnout among its natural base. Here in a single chart is the winning candidate’s share of the two-party vote among five groups traditionally thought of as swing voters since 1972 – independents, suburbanites, voters age 30 and up, white women, white Catholics:
Mitt Romney’s coalition among these five groups would have been the foundation of a clear national majority throughout the political era that ran from Harry Truman to George W. Bush, and the polling practices that grew up in that era would have captured that majority’s formation. Pollsters have had to unlearn a lot of what they knew about polling in order to stay ahead of those changes in the electorate, and poll analysis does as well. The harder question will be how we can tell, other than after the fact, if the pollsters’ guesses don’t capture future shifts. Merely appealing to the idea that the majority of pollsters will always be right is an unsatisfying answer, especially given the follow-the-herd tendencies in the industry.
So the state poll averages were right, and really nothing that contradicted their narrative was. Does all of this mean that the state poll averages, and the models that run on them, will always be right in the future? Of course not. Anybody who has followed gambling prognosticators or stock pickers knows that winning streaks of couple of cycles do not always equal omniscience, even when backed by facially impressive-looking math. Unquestioning faith in mathematical models still has not been adequately called to account for its role in the 2008 financial crisis, for example. (On the other hand, climate models can only dream of the predictive success record of the state poll averages). Just because somebody gives you a prediction with numbers on it and is right a few times in a row doesn’t mean they always will be. If you look at this as a science, you have to recognize that we don’t have nearly enough data from presidential elections to constitute a meaningful sample size. And the fact that the poll averages were right because the pollsters changed the way they poll – in a world of ongoing technological and demographic change, and via methods that are themselves far from scientific – leaves us with a lot of uncertainties about whether they will make the right guesses again next time. Tom Jensen’s next “hunch” could be wrong. There might be elections in the future in which polls using likely voter screens are more accurate than polls that all but abandon the project. Skeptical examination of the assumptions behind the polls’ turnout forecasts will not go away, and should not go away.
But all that said, we’re conservatives; we learn from experience, and even when the process is questionable, results talk. The case for trusting state poll averages over all other indicators, at least in the stretch run of presidential elections, has been strengthened a good deal by a third consecutive cycle of those averages calling the result right in 48 or 49 states out of 50. The case for treating other indicators as predictive of turnout has been weakened and in some specific cases pretty badly discredited. And while I remain a little less firmly convinced of the value added by modeling of how undecided voters will break at the end – over and above the value of the poll averages themselves – the 538 model had a good election in that regard.
A final word. While I’ve been following elections for a long time, I really cut my teeth reading polls in the 2002 and 2004 elections. I recall well from those races seeing a lot of polls that were registered-voter polls or polls with D-heavy samples very favorable to Democrats, yet the end results were much more favorable to Republicans. In the presidential elections of 2000, 2004 and even 2008 (before the financial crisis), we repeatedly saw the polls shift towards the GOP when we got past Labor Day and most pollsters started using likely voter screens. I learned a lot from that experience, some of which is clearly still true, and some not.
But I also saw a lot about human nature that is eternally true. A lot of Republican pundits and poll-readers looked like geniuses in that period by projecting Republican wins in a lot of the competitive races. The lesson, then as now, is that it is easy to look smart when your own side is winning all the close ones. It doesn’t make you a bad or dishonest advocate for your side if you are better at predicting your side’s victories than its losses. But it means you are still one side’s advocate – and while I work hard to call things as I see them (I genuinely believed every word I wrote in this race), I make no bones about being an advocate.
But you have not really made it as a neutral arbiter of presidential polling – let alone a scientific one – until you have given both sides news they desperately do not want to hear. We will know Nate Silver has really made it as a presidential pollster when people on his own ideological side are screaming in terror at his conclusions, and not before.
The second part of my 3-part post-mortem on the polls and the 2012 election. See yesterday’s Part I here.
IV. Likely vs. Registered Voters
A. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Screen
Near the heart of every major polling controversy this year was the issue of sampling and likely-voter screens. Polls traditionally report results among either “all adults” (whether or not registered to vote), “registered voters,” or “likely voters.” Historically, there’s a well-recognized pattern: all-adults and registered-voter polls have tended to skew a couple of points in favor of the Democrats, and in the past this has usually been to the detriment of the accuracy of the polls. The pattern was especially pronounced this year; Bob Krumm noted before the election that Obama’s strength in national polls was directly correlated with how lenient the poll’s likely-voter screen was, and Nate Silver found the same effect in August, concluding:
It’s all a bit of a mess, frankly. I suspect that part of the problem is that polling firms are applying likely voter methods that might have been designed 30 years ago to a modern polling universe of extremely low response rates (even the most thorough polling firms can only get about 10 percent of voters to return their calls), cellphone-only households, and an increasingly diverse and partisan electorate – and that is producing erratic and unpredictable results. There’s always some uncertainty about just who will turn out to vote, but there is more of it than usual this year.
He also noted at the same time that Obama’s support was strongest among those poll screens considered least likely to vote.
Those screens have worked in the past; if they didn’t, the poll averages would have been useless a long time ago. This is why one of the regular rules of thumb in reading polls is that if a campaign is citing polls of registered rather than likely voters, especially late in the campaign, it’s doomed. Yet that’s exactly what Obama supporters were doing in the closing weeks, and more or less what Jim Messina was saying even after the election was over. For once, the registered-voter numbers were more accurate than the polls that put rigorous effort into likely-voter screening. The question is whether the pollsters actually had a good reason to do this, or whether they just got awfully lucky.
Part of what is supposed to make polling valuable is pollsters’ ability to judge which voters are likely to show up to vote. They get to the likely-voter number by first, constructing a sample of registered voters, and second, applying a series of screening questions to determine which of those voters is likely to vote. That’s what Messina was talking about in his argument that “traditional polling” was “broken” – the Obama campaign’s theory throughout the election was that pollsters using the kinds of likely voter screens that have worked in the past (like Gallup and Rasmussen) would be wrong this time. The lesson we learned, at least this year, is that Messina was right and the traditional, professional pollsters were wrong – and that the nature of Obama’s coalition made the application of likely voter screens particularly likely to affect the accuracy of the polls.
But determining which voters are likely to vote is the part of polling that is most inherently subjective and least scientific. Moreover, pollsters are often not very forthcoming about how they make these determinations, so sometimes when they release a poll, the best you can do is compare the number of registered and likely voters in the sample. As a result, a certain amount of deductive work is required to figure out why some polls give different results from others. There’s only so much we can know from the outside, but it appears that pollsters like Gallup and Rasmussen were, for much of the cycle, using likely-voter screens that made traditional assumptions about who would make the effort to vote – and those assumptions just didn’t hold this year, as illustrated by Gallup’s final poll envisioning an electorate that was 78% white (the exits said 72%). By contrast, a number of the polls that were later vindicated were reporting results that defied all historical precedents, classifying as many as 99% of registered voters as likely voters. Their process seemed problematic precisely because it was so different from the things that made polls trustworthy in the past, but they got results.
One of the pollsters that projected a Democrat-friendly electorate and ended up getting high marks in the post-election rankings of final polls was PPP, a Democratic pollster employed by SEIU and Daily Kos, among other clients whose identities are not known. PPP’s overall accuracy throughout election cycles is a longer story, but they did end up having a good record at the very end. Here’s Tom Jensen, the principal of PPP, discussing how his firm determines who is likely to vote:
Jensen conceded that the secret to PPP’s success was what boiled down to a well informed but still not entirely empirical hunch. “We just projected that African-American, Hispanic, and young voter turnout would be as high in 2012 as it was in 2008, and we weighted our polls accordingly,” he explained. “When you look at polls that succeeded and those that failed that was the difference.” Given the methodological challenges currently confronting pollsters, those hunches are only going to prove more important. “The art part of polling, as opposed to the science part,” Jensen said, “is becoming a bigger and bigger part of the equation in having accurate polls.”
In other words, the successful pollsters this cycle were doing exactly the same thing the poll skeptics were doing: making a more-or-less informed guess as to what the electorate would look like and weighting their results to match that. As Neil Stevens notes:
I don’t remember anyone willing to say PPP was actively rigging the polls to reach chosen results, but there it is in black and white. Jensen decided in advance what he wanted the electorate to look like, and so tweaked the numbers until he got what he wanted. This isn’t a whole lot different from what Research 2000 admitted to doing, folks.
In science, it’s not just that you got the answer you wanted. It’s the process that matters.
Research 2000, as you may recall, was PPP’s predecessor as DailyKos pollster, but had to be canned for more or less manipulating its data to get to results it wanted; Kos eventually sued them for fraud, which was settled out of court. Here’s what Nate Silver had to say about R2k at the time:
[I]n practice, a pollster will usually have enough knobs to twist between likely voter screens, weighting and sampling assumptions, etc., that they could back into almost any result they wanted more often than not. But there would usually be some scientific pretense for it.
In fact, Jensen’s hunches changed over the course of the race. Sean Davis calculated the demographic composition of PPP’s Florida polls over the course of the race, yielding the following percentages of white voters:
4/17: 71%…6/5: 70%…7/3: 69%…9/12: 70%…9/23: 69%…10/14: 66%……10/28: 64%…11/5: 66%
From April until September 23, PPP assumed an average white vote of 69.8%. From October 14 through November 5, PPP assumed an average white vote of 65%. What changed? Who knows?
It’s entirely possible, of course, that Jensen has some other source of information he’s not disclosing here, but taking him at his word, the “poll averages are science!” crowd should have just a little more humility about exactly what it is that they are placing their unquestioning faith in – Jensen believed that this year’s electorate would favor the candidate he favored, and he was right, but right in roughly the same way pundits are right when they say their side will win. Nuclear physics, this is not.
Once Jensen set his targets, he abandoned the likely-voter screening that has worked in the past – while firms that clung to it got burned:
How PPP got it right while others, including polling titans Gallup and Rasmussen, got it so wrong goes back to a difference in method for how the firms identify likely voters and how long they conduct a poll.
Rasmussen, for example, conducts most of its polls in one night – a problem, Jensen said, because many of the voters who typically lean Democratic (including African-Americans, Latinos and young voters) are more difficult to reach in a single night. Meanwhile, Gallup uses a complicated screen with numerous questions to determine which voters are likely to turn up at the polls.
Like Rasmussen, PPP uses robocalling to conduct its polls. But its screen is much simpler than either of the other polling firms.
“We have a very simple likely voter screen,” Jensen said, “‘If you don’t plan to vote in this fall’s election, hang up now.’
“What we find is that if you’re someone who’s not willing to take the time to answer a telephone poll, you probably aren’t going to vote. But if you are willing to take the time to answer a telephone poll, you probably are going to vote. So it’s a much less-complicated voter screen than somebody like Gallup or Rasmussen has, but I think that it’s a better barometer of the electorate.”
It also means the likely voter screen – like Jensen’s hunches – is completely opaque to the consumer of the poll. All you see is the opinions of the people Jensen decides should be polled, and who agree to talk to him.
Jensen’s not the only one in his industry who describes a process that is less and less hard-science:
Even pollsters themselves conceded that the combination of demographic and technological changes had made their supposed science more inexact than ever. “We’re in sort of what I would call polling’s dark age,” Jay Leve, who runs the polling firm Survey USA, told me earlier this fall. “We’re coming out of a period of time where everyone agreed about the right way to conduct research, and we’re entering into a time where no one can agree what the right way to conduct research is.”
[Nate Silver’s] appeal, of course, is that he’s scientific. And last night, his science worked because the polls themselves worked. But as polls become more art than science, Silver’s approach could become more tenuous. The good thing about pollsters – at least the good ones – is that they’re constantly reassessing and tweaking their approaches. That’s the bad thing, too, at least when it comes to having any certainty that about how they’ll perform in the future.
B. Why The Screen Mattered So Much This Time
Why did these differences in projecting the electorate matter? In an ordinary election, they would not: ordinary winning presidential candidates have a broad enough base of support that you can see it coming pretty clearly without needing the right “hunch.” But Obama was not an ordinary winning presidential candidate. The racially polarized electorate of the Obama era means that every slight shift in demographics can have an outsized effect on outcomes.
Let’s look at what the exit polls tell us. 81% of the electorate was voters age 30 and up; Romney won those by 2 points, 50-48. Drilling into the state-by-state exit polls, here’s a map of what the election would have looked like just among voters age 30 and up – losses with young voters cost Romney six states worth 95 electoral votes, more than enough to flip the election:
Historically, that is game-set-match; the last candidate to win the national popular vote while losing voters age 30 and up was Jimmy Carter in 1976:
Another 11% of the electorate was white voters under 30; Romney won those too, by 7 points, 51-44. These were Paul Ryan’s “faded Obama posters” voters – they swung 17 points from Obama winning them by 10 in 2008. Obama’s pop culture cache with young white voters had worn off by 2012 in the face of his record. That’s 92% of the electorate accounted for, and Romney up 50-48 and with a decisive lead in electoral votes. In other words, the 8% of the electorate consisting of non-white voters too young to have voted in the Bush v. Gore race in 2000 accounted for the entirety of Obama’s national margin of victory.
The “gender gap” was similarly a feature of race and racial turnout patterns. Romney won white women, who made up 38% of the electorate, by 14 points, 56-42; this was the biggest margin of victory among white women since Reagan in 1984. Obama in 2008 was the first winning candidate since Carter in 1976 to lose white women, but Carter lost them by 6, Obama last time by 7. Yet, Romney lost women overall by 11, 55-44. Why? He lost non-white women 85-15, including Hispanic women 76-23 and black women 96-3. Among non-white voters, Obama again maximized the group most favorable to him: black and Hispanic women were 14% of the electorate, compared to 10% black and Hispanic men, both of which Romney lost by less severely lopsided margins (Obama won black men 87-11 and Hispanic men 65-33). In other words, the black and Hispanic segment of the electorate was something on the order of 58% female; black voters were over 60% female. Romney had no similar redoubt of lockstep support – exit polls showed that even among Mormon voters, he didn’t crack 80%. So polls measuring turnout had to match two highly asymmetric campaigns, one winning majority groups with support in the 50s and 60s, the other winning much smaller groups by enormous margins.
You can slice the exit polls a few different ways and see similar results along racial lines (without reference to age or gender). Nate Cohn notes that black turnout in general was key to winning Ohio, as black voters were 15% of the electorate there, up from 11% in 2008. If you look solely at white and black voters and leave out Obama’s margins with Hispanic, Asian, and Native American voters, Romney wins five states he lost – Florida, Colorado, Nevada, Pennsylvania (very narrowly) and New Mexico – enough to swing the race:
Of course, white and black voters together are only 53% of the vote in New Mexico. Neither a campaign nor a poll analysis can safely ignore such segments of the electorate. But my point is that, because Obama’s margin of victory (both nationally and in the critical swing states) was entirely the result of his outsized margins with very narrow but homogenous segments of the electorate, the accuracy of polls was highly sensitive to the relative size of this segment in turnout compared to other voters.
Yet, voters under 30 in particular have rarely been a reliable source of voter turnout; for years and years, it has almost invariably been the case that a campaign losing with the rest of the electorate but placing its entire faith on high turnout from young voters was a losing campaign. Even Obama in 2008 didn’t do that: he won voters over 30, independents, and young white voters handily. His coalition was broader then, before he had a record.
It is true that Carter set a precedent in 1976 for appealing to the under-30 voters. But thanks to the Baby Boomers, the oldest of which were just hitting 30 at the time, voters under 30 were 32% of the electorate in 1976; today, thanks to shrinking birthrates and a graying population, they are just 19% and demographically likely to decline even further:
The last year in which under-30 voters were 20% of the electorate was 1992, not coincidentally the last election less than 20 years after Roe v. Wade. Take away 50 million abortions, and the demographics of the electorate look quite different in a race where the winning candidate will end up around 62 million votes. But while young voters are less numerous and traditionally a below-average turnout group, Obama for the second straight election cycle managed to increase them as a share of the electorate, closing in on their share of the population (Census data from 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2010 show 18-29 year olds as a steady 22% of the voting-age population; by contrast, with the Boomers graying, 30-44 year olds dropped in that time from 31% to 26% of the population, while 45-64 year olds rose from 30% to 35%). Here’s the major age groups’ turnout relative to their share of the general voting-age population:
And while the smallness of the age breakdowns among black and Hispanic voters creates rounding-error issues that make the math a little fuzzy, this chart illustrates rather vividly that the proportion of young voters among non-white voters as a whole was much, much larger than the proportion of young voters among white voters:
Voters under 30 made up somewhere north of a third of all Latino voters, compared to less than 15% of all white voters. Partly that, too, is demographics; the median age of Hispanics is 27 compared to 42 for white non-Hispanics. But it’s also the case that OFA maximized the showing of the few loyal groups that provided its entire margin of victory. Rasmussen came to a similar conclusion in evaluating why his polls were off:
A preliminary review indicates that one reason for this is that we underestimated the minority share of the electorate. In 2008, 26% of voters were non-white. We expected that to remain relatively constant. However, in 2012, 28% of voters were non-white. That was exactly the share projected by the Obama campaign. It is not clear at the moment whether minority turnout increased nationally, white turnout decreased, or if it was a combination of both. The increase in minority turnout has a significant impact on the final projections since Romney won nearly 60% of white votes while Obama won an even larger share of the minority vote.
Another factor may be related to the generation gap. It is interesting to note that the share of seniors who showed up to vote was down slightly from 2008 while the number of young voters was up slightly. Pre-election data suggested that voters over 65 were more enthusiastic about voting than they had been four years earlier so the decline bears further examination.
As Rasmussen notes, the demographic shift from 2008 could be higher non-white turnout, or lower white turnout (or both). Sean Trende has estimated that white voter turnout was down in absolute terms and in particular in proportion to white Americans’ share of the voting-age population:
Had the same number of white voters cast ballots in 2012 as did in 2008, the 2012 electorate would have been about 74 percent white, 12 percent black, and 9 percent Latino (the same result occurs if you build in expectations for population growth among all these groups). In other words, the reason this electorate looked so different from the 2008 electorate is almost entirely attributable to white voters staying home. The other groups increased their vote, but by less than we would have expected simply from population growth.
Put another way: The increased share of the minority vote as a percent of the total vote is not the result of a large increase in minorities in the numerator, it is a function of many fewer whites in the denominator.
The 74% would be in line with Rasmussen’s assumptions, which were more reasonable than Gallup’s projection of a 78% white electorate. Byron York has more on the collapse of white voter turnout in Ohio by about 200,000 voters, which led to Romney getting fewer total votes there than John McCain in 2008.
The actual proportions in the voting-age population depend on how you read the Census data and break it out to exclude the non-voting-age. The Census showed non-Hispanic whites as 63.7% of the overall population (of all age groups) in 2010, compared to 69.7% in 2000, dropping to 63.4% in the 2011 Census estimate. Looking at Pew Hispanic Center data, the nation’s 215 million eligible voters are 72% white, 13% black, 11% Hispanic and 4% Asian; the electorate was 72% white, 13% black, 10% Hispanic and 3% Asian, which when you do the math means that 59% of eligible black voters voted, 58% of white voters, 53% of Hispanic voters and 41% of eligible Asian voters. In other words: high black voter turnout, especially by historic standards; low Hispanic and Asian turnout but rising by historic standards and in particular rising relative to the rest of the electorate:
Geographically, this map shows the distribution of states, with the higher percentages of non-Hispanic whites in darker blue:
Leaving race and age aside, other aspects of the exit polling, like the pre-election national polls and the internals of pre-election state polls, mostly present a picture of an incumbent president doomed to defeat in any ordinary political environment in recent memory. As noted, Romney won independents by 5 points; the last candidate to lose independents by more than 2 points and win the presidency or the popular vote was, again, Carter in 1976, who lost independents by 11 points but took advantage of a depressed, decimated and divided Republican base in the aftermath of Watergate and Reagan’s primary challenge to Ford. With the economy the number one issue throughout the election, voters told exit pollsters they trusted Romney more than Obama, albeit narrowly, 49-48. 77% of exit poll respondents said the economy was in not so good or poor shape, and Romney won those voters by 22 points, 60-38. 59% of the voters cited the economy as the top issue; Romney won them 51-47, plus winning 66-32 among the 15% of voters who cited the budget deficit. And this exit poll question was perhaps the most dramatic of all:
In basically any American election before 2012, I would tell you with great confidence that a candidate, much less an incumbent, is toast if he (1) loses independents; (2) loses voters age 30 and up; (3) loses white women by double digits; (4) loses white voters under 30; (5) is less trusted than his opponent on the economy when 59% of voters cited the economy as the dominant issue in the election; and (6) loses voters who prioritized leadership, strong values or a vision for the future. That has never before been the electoral profile of a winning candidate. As I said before the election, if it that changed, we need to rethink everything we know about elections.
We do – at least, for now, when Obama’s on the ballot. The OFA theory of the electorate was that “really, it’s different this time” – that neither the economic doldrums nor any other factor would dampen the historic levels of enthusiasm for Obama among non-white voters under 30. And as it turned out, OFA was right: they turned out in numbers totally out of step with their historic turnout patterns relative to their share of the voting-age population, and delivered the entirety of Obama’s national margin of victory.
Viewing this, to some extent, I feel like a guy who shorted the NASDAQ in 1998, reasoning that the tech bubble couldn’t last forever, and ended up getting mocked by the guys who watched all their “new economy” stocks rise without an end in sight. History teaches us that those guys, of course, eventually lost their shirts – but they were awfully proud of their “this time, it’s different” reasoning for quite a while. Time will tell if the believers in the new Democratic turnout model go the same way.
If it does, how will we know? Will polls run by partisan Democrats like Tom Jensen readjust their hunches? Or will we have to look outside the polls? I will look at these questions tomorrow in Part III.
As promised, a mea culpa on my pre-election poll analysis: why I was wrong, why the state poll averages were right – and why I’d say most of the same things if I had to do it over. I suppose I have lost a good deal of credibility with a number of people by making the kind of out-on-a-limb prediction I don’t usually make, and being wrong. But my assumptions have always been out in the open. Let’s examine why they led to the wrong answer, and which of those assumptions should be re-evaluated in the future.
I. More Evidence Is Better Than Less
Discussions of polling often lend themselves to more heat than light. A lot of the post-election poll commentary is even dumber than the pre-election poll commentary, as victorious liberals spin a narrative that conservatives were all “poll deniers” or “poll truthers” ignoring the polls. Now, it’s true that there were more than a few people on the Right who made intelligent discussion of the polls harder rather than easier. It’s also true that some of the efforts at “unskewing” the polls were unhelpfully ham-handed; in this pre-election essay I explained why Dean Chambers’ unskewedpolls.com was more alchemy than science. Chambers was projecting a strong Romney lead in the polls back in September, when neither I nor almost anybody I knew believed that Romney was actually ahead. My mantra on Twitter in August and September, like that of many conservatives I respect, was simply that it was a close race, that Obama had problems with independent voters and hadn’t closed the deal yet, and that there was still time for Romney to catch up to him. While a lot of Romney’s problems were baked-in by mid-summer, I don’t think that was an unreasonable view to take at the time; as it turned out, there would be twists in the race throughout October. But those of us who attempted to take the polls seriously, and drew conclusions from the polling evidence itself as well as external evidence, were not denying anything; we were just looking under the hood.
A. Believe The Polls, But Don’t Believe Only The Polls
Let me start by restating my philosophy of polling, and indeed my philosophy of examining most any question. Polls are not reality. They are a tool for measuring reality. They are traditionally the best single tool, and polling averages make them a better tool by evening out the outliers. But they are not perfect tools: public polls have called the outcome of races wrong before, or been off on the margins of victory by a significant amount. There are reasons why campaigns spend a lot of money on their own polls, which – other than for purposes like push-polling or testing messages – they would not do if an average of public polls was as flawless a guide to the electorate as a thermometer. If you think public poll averages are an infallible predictor, then the uniform practice of actual campaigns is totally irrational. Indeed, listen to Jim Messina, the nuts-and-bolts guru of the Obama campaign, on his view of public polling:
Every night, Obama’s analytics team would run the campaign 66,000 times on a computer simulation. “And every morning we would come in and spend our money based on those simulations,” said Messina.
Their models ultimately predicted Florida results within 0.2%, and 0.4% in Ohio. The only state they got wrong, noted Messina, was Colorado, “where we got one more point than we thought we would.”
The Obama campaign was able to do that, he said, because they turned away from mainstream polling from shops like Gallup, which he called “wrong the entire election,” in their prediction that fewer minorities and fewer young people would turn out to vote.
“We spent a whole bunch of time figuring out that American polling is broken,” said Messina. “We never did a national poll. We only did local and state polls.”
Is Messina a “poll truther” or “poll denier” for saying that “American polling is broken” or rejecting “traditional” polls? Was he wasting Obama’s money by running his own state and local polls instead of just reading 538? Or is he reflecting the fact that public polls involve a certain amount of guesswork about voter turnout that can only be definitively tested each new election cycle by the final vote tallies?
The most recent set of publicly available polls are also not the only tool for measuring reality. There are all sorts of metrics – some more hard and quantifiable than others – that have traditionally been useful in assessing the state of play: voter-registration numbers, early voting data and absentee ballot data, trendlines in the polls, what the pollsters themselves are reporting about voter enthusiasm, and hazier indicators like small-dollar donations and the size of crowds on the campaign trail. It’s hardly anti-empirical to examine these additional facts, and allow them to affect your conclusions. The people who correctly predicted that Harry Reid would hang on to beat Sharron Angle when the final polls said otherwise were looking at this kind of information. If all you did was read the RCP average or 538, you would have missed that.
None of these are reasons to disregard the polls; they should still be the primary item of evidence. But neither does it make sense to treat them with blind reverence and ignore all the external evidence – especially when (1) different sets of polls are in conflict with each other and (2) the internal breakdowns of the polls, which can act as a sanity check on the plausibility of the polls’ assumptions, are telling you that the polls in question are predicting something that is historically unlikely to happen.
To go back to one more example from baseball analysis (sabermetrics), this is sort of like the “statheads vs scouts” debate: whether you can better project a player’s future accomplishments by looking at his statistics or by listening to experts analyze his “tools.” I’m in the stathead camp: I believe strongly in quantifiable data, and I place it at the center of just about any baseball analysis I do. In fact, I probably err more often than not on overemphasizing the numbers. But as Bill James, the father of sabermetrics, has often said, sabermetrics (or any other field of hard science, soft science or would-be science) is not the search for statistics, it’s the search for truth, and in searching for the truth, you don’t blind yourself to some of the available evidence simply because it doesn’t fit in a column of your model. Most statheads today will tell you that no matter how good your statistical measurements and how highly you prioritize them, you can learn things from also listening to the scouts that you might not learn anywhere else. The scouts can’t tell you a guy with a terrible stat line is actually a major star – but in a close case, their view can make the difference.
B. Regrets, I Have A Few
If I had it to do over, maybe I’d be less definitive in pronouncing Obama “toast,” but for the most part I’d look at the same evidence, see the same things and draw the same conclusions I drew at the time. I do, however, have two main regrets.
First, which is an unfortunate side effect of doing punditry as a part-time unpaid hobby rather than a full time job, is that I should probably have spent more time breaking down the internals of all the battleground-state polls to see exactly how geographically consistent the national trends were: I had seen those trends confirmed in Ohio and a couple of the other key battleground states, and didn’t do the deep, time-consuming dive into the internals of every single battleground state. As it turned out, Romney did very well with independent voters in a number of the battleground states, but critically underachieved with them in others and lost those states. Romney beat Obama with independents by 5 points or more in Ohio (+10), Virginia (+10), North Carolina (+15), Nevada (+8), and Pennsylvania (+5). In more lightly-contested states, he won them in Missouri (+26), Indiana (+11), New Mexico (+8) and Arizona (+6). But in two other battleground states, his margin with independents was narrow: Colorado (+4), and Michigan (+1). And he actually lost independents in Iowa (-14), New Hampshire (-7), Florida (-3), Wisconsin (-1), and Minnesota (-4). (It says something about Romney that his biggest failure with independent voters, especially in states with lily-white electorates that didn’t present the demographic challenges apparent elsewhere, came in the places where the voters had been exposed at length to his scorched-earth 2008 and 2012 primary campaigns). In non-battleground states where exit polls were taken, independents mostly trended pro-Romney in red states – Alabama (+52), Mississippi (+34), Montana (+7) – and pro-Obama in blue states – California (-12), New York (-4), Illinois (-5), Vermont (-40), Maine (-28), Maryland (-12), Massachusetts (-7), Oregon (-7), Washington (-3), Connecticut (-3). In just two totally non-competitive states did independents buck the state’s partisan tilt: Romney won independents in New Jersey (+1), and Obama tied him in Kansas. If Romney had won all the states where he carried independents, he would have won, but not in all the states I thought he would win:
I might have caught some of this with more time to commit to each state, although in some cases, that weakness came out only in the very late polls. Or not; for example, PPP had Romney up by 2 with independents in New Hampshire on October 28, and up by 7 with independents in Florida the same day.
Second, and far more importantly, I didn’t do enough to re-evaluate my conclusion after declaring it on Twitter on October 19 and laying it out in detail on October 26, eleven days before Election Day – and that week turned out to be Romney’s high water-mark in the national and state polls. Nationally, Romney led in the RCP average all but two days between October 9 and October 31, and Obama was below 48% in the average every day from October 8 to November 5. In four key states, Romney had seized the lead in the RCP average: in Colorado, he led from October 9-29; in New Hampshire, he led from October 19-21; in Virginia, from October 19 to November 2; in Florida, from October 8 to the end of the race. Those leads gave me confidence that Romney’s momentum in the national polls was real and would leave him needing to pick off just one more state to win. Instead, he lost all four, and the state poll averages were predicting three of those four losses by Election Day. When I wrote my initial post, I assumed (given the lateness in the cycle and the evident deterioration of Obama’s position in the national polls and with independent voters by October 26), that there was not time for any new game-changing events. I was wrong.
I try hard to avoid confirmation bias in evaluating the evidence before reaching a conclusion – but it can be a lot harder to avoid it after publicly committing to a conclusion, which of course is the exact same “painted in a corner” problem I suspected Nate Silver of having. I spent the week after my “toast” post without electricity, internet, heat or hot water and only sporadically able to get to my office (I had written most of this essay when the lights went out on October 29), and probably did not spend enough of my remaining time going back over the subsequent polling to reconsider whether the conditions that seemed to show Obama in an untenable position were abating. (By Election Day, for example, the national poll averages were running in Obama’s favor as well). I remain doubtful that Hurricane Sandy had enough impact to swing the election and particularly doubtful that it did much to affect turnout, which decided the election; but its interruption of the dynamic of the endgame probably did do what the final week state and national polls showed happening: cut into Romney’s lead with independents and possibly cost him his chance to win New Hampshire, Virginia, and/or Florida. Exit polls showed that late-deciding voters broke in Obama’s favor, which I had not expected to happen for an incumbent whose approval ratings and favorability with independent voters had been underwater for so much of his term.
II. Poll vs. Poll
The polls, particularly the national and swing-state polls in the third and fourth weeks of October, were telling consistent stories about the opinions of different groups of voters, but contradictory stories about the numbers in which those groups would show up to vote. I looked at internal evidence, and saw that Romney was winning independents handily and Obama was drawing nearly no crossover support from Republicans, which meant Obama needed to win entirely by having enough extra Democrats vote to overcome Romney’s independent advantage. The first premise was borne out by Romney’s win with independents and slight edge with crossovers, although his 5-point margin with independents was at least 3 points smaller than the margin most polls had been showing when I first made my “toast” call. Had Romney carried independents by 8 or 9, as the polls were showing at the time, and not lost them in a few key states, Obama would have needed at minimum a D+4 electorate to win nationally. As it turned out, Obama won by about 2 points with a D+6 electorate compared to 2008’s D+7; Democratic turnout was down a point from 2008, but Republican turnout matched the 32% of 2008. So, my analysis correctly judged what Obama needed to do. The historic turnout conditions of 2008, which I believed were necessary for Obama to win, were effectively repeated.
There were all sorts of reasons, based in history and observable fact, to believe that those turnout conditions were unlikely to repeat themselves. Republican turnout had been unusually low in 2008 – the lowest since before Ronald Reagan started converting a lot of people to the party – following the historic financial crisis and 8 years of Bush, and had bounced back in 2010. While 2010 was a midterm election and involved a distinct electorate, its results underscored that there seemed no obvious reason to believe it would approach that nadir again. History tells us to treat with caution the assumption that elections held in the aftermath of a catastrophic event like the 2008 financial crisis are representative. The harder metrics, which I will discuss in Part III, also suggested GOP turnout was still doing well, if not as well as in the off-year elections of 2010. And the vaunted OFA turnout machine could only count for so much: certainly, no matter how sophisticated Obama’s turnout operation, low GOP turnout was something he could not manufacture through operational efficiency. Obama had polled poorly in areas like job approval for most of his tenure, and campaigns that lose independent voters tend to be losing at least some of the enthusiasm of their base as well. As I will discuss below, virtually all the features of Obama’s profile in the polls – mirrored in the post-election exit polls – were traditionally characteristic of losing candidates, as were the nature of the “this time it’s different, really!” arguments made by his boosters. It had to be different for him to win. The customary laws of political gravity had to be defied. And they were.
As I’ll get to more in Part II, with regard to turnout, what the exit polls show is that Obama really did do something that was very, very historically unusual – and on top of that, and perhaps even more importantly, Romney’s GOTV operation (both the mechanics and his ability to inspire marginal Right-leaning voters to show up) turned out to be far less than projected. This time, it really was different. And the challenging question going forward is whether it will stay that way.
It’s time to start making final predictions for the 2012 election. I’m also rounding up predictions from others who are out on the limb with me predicting a Romney victory. I still feel fairly confident about my bottom line: Romney will win. But until we see the actual voter turnout, it’s hard to project more than educated guesswork as to the size of that win.
The Electorate and the Popular Vote
The final week of polling has been even more of a mess than usual in a season in which the polls have made less and less sense both internally (their assumptions about turnout and the conflict between the toplines and Romney’s margins with independents) and externally (how the polls’ views of turnout conflict with every other item of evidence outside the polling). Josh Jordan notes the particularly unstable polling of independents in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
But while some of the more garish double-digit margins are gone, the latest battery of national polls shows Romney’s standing vs Obama with independents most likely somewhere around a 7 point lead: CNN/ORC (+22, but with the smallest of sample sizes), Monmouth/SUSA (+16), Rasmussen (+9), WaPo/ABC (+7), NBC/WSJ (+7), Pew (+4), Gallup (-1).
What will turnout look like? First up, we have Rasmussen’s October 2012 Party ID survey; I’ve revised my chart to look at the historical track record since 2004 of his October survey:
That’s an R+6 electorate. Obama is clearly, in my view, doomed if the electorate is D+3 (the historical average for presidential elections since 1984) or less, and probably needs about D+6, maybe D+5 (the 2000 electorate) to win. We haven’t had an R+ electorate for a presidential election since probably the 1920s (2004 was even); we may not have had an R+6 electorate since Reconstruction ended. If Rasmussen’s survey is even half right, Democrats could be in for a very, very rough night across the board. Even as accurate as Rasmussen has been, I’m hesitant to go out all the way on that limb – but it’s hard to argue with his record on this front. The survey encompasses a huge sample, on the order of 15,000 interviews.
It may be tough to measure the final electorate, because exit polls won’t capture early voters, and in some states that’s a lot of people. (The Denver Post cites Colorado Secretary of State figures showing more than 62% of the state’s registered voters have voted already, with a turnout of R+2). My prediction for the national turnout is a conservative one: D+2, D 37/R 35/I 28. Assuming Romney wins Republicans 94-6, Obama carries Democrats 93-7, and Romney wins independents 53-47 – again, a conservative projection given the polls – that gives us Romney 50.3%, Obama 49.7%.
(If you run those same assumptions in the electorate from Rasmussen’s party ID survey, you get Romney 53.7%, Obama 46.2% – and it gets wider from there if the spread among independents gets into double digits. But I’m being conservative here, as I still expect the more likely outcome to be fairly close).
The Electoral College
I start with this map, with Romney up 235-190:
Obama is still running ads in North Carolina and still contesting Florida; Florida is usually close, but I see no real likelihood that it goes for Obama again.
Then, let’s take off the board the states where Romney is only going to win if it’s really breaking big for him – I’m actually now including Nevada and not Pennsylvania in that category, and to be cautious, Maine’s 2d Congressional District – and the states I’d almost written off in September where I now think Romney is in very solid shape (Virginia, Colorado and New Hampshire):
Romney 261, Obama 223. Iowa becomes irrelevant at this point – Romney wins one of the remaining three, or Obama wins all three, and it’s game over. But I don’t actually see Pennsylvania being the one to get Romney over the line if he loses Ohio and Wisconsin. Playing it safe, I end up with Romney taking just one of those four – Wisconsin – and a narrow electoral college win, 271-267:
If Romney wins, as I project, I strongly suspect that he will win at least one of the other three, maybe all three. But Wisconsin is my pick for the state that puts him over the hump.
Here’s RCP’s current map of the Senate races, projecting each side picks up 3 seats, netting no change to the Democrats’ 53-47 advantage:
That’s a very disappointing outcome from where the GOP should have been, but probably not as bad as it has looked most of the past two months. I’m going to be absurdly bullish and say R+2 Senate seats because I can’t look across Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Virginia, Massachusetts, Indiana, and Missouri and see the Democrats going better than 5-for-7. There are different reasons in different races – Mourdock and Akin will have strong GOP turnout advantages at their backs, Scott Brown is just a tough campaigner, and Smith, Mandel, Thompson and Allen all have the swing state ground games behind them. Add in Montana and it will take a big set of Romney coattails for the Republicans to win half or more of those eight races – but 3 out of 8 hardly seems unreasonable if the presidential race is going well.
(It’s also impossible to be sure how the Maine Senate race will come out – three-way races are notoriously hard to poll – but I’ll nonetheless be surprised if Angus King doesn’t win and caucus with the Democrats. A 50 D/49 R Senate with Paul Ryan as the VP could put King in position to be a tremendous power broker.).
Like most people, I’m not even bothering with a House prediction, other than to reiterate a point Neil Stevens has made: if the electorate was really going to look like the D+7 Democratic wave of 2008, we’d be talking about a ton of Democratic House pickups (redistricting or no) and a threat of the return of Speaker Pelosi. But at this point, even the DCCC seems to have all but thrown in the towel; Nate Silver doesn’t even seem to be tracking odds for a Democratic House pickup. That suggests that down-ticket Democrats are looking at a much more realistic universe.
Around The Horn
Michael Barone has Romney 315, Obama 223. I’m always in good company agreeing with Barone.
Ben Domenech, who was predicting an Obama win until the past month, has Romney 278, Obama 260, with Wisconsin the deciding state.
Gerry Daly’s map has Romney 296, Obama 242.
Neil Stevens’ map has Romney 279, Obama 190 even with a bunch of states up in the air.
Josh Jordan walks through why he has Romney 295, Obama 243 and Romney by 50.5 to 48.5 in the popular vote.
Bob Krumm walks through 5 scenarios.
Jim Geraghty looks at when pollsters have been wrong.
The centerpiece of my thesis (discussed here and here) that Mitt Romney will win Tuesday’s election is his consistently strong showing among independent voters (ie, voters who identify as neither Republicans nor Democrats) across the majority of national and state polls, pretty much regardless of whether those are polls he’s winning or losing. On that score, I believe the polls; if they’re wrong about the independent vote, my analysis is essentially irrelevant. But if they’re right, I believe I’ll be proven right. If Romney goes on to win independents nationally by 5+ points and carry independents by more than a few points in states like Ohio and Wisconsin, he will win.
Obama can only overcome that kind of deficit among independents by decisively winning the partisan turnout battle – indeed, the polls that show him winning nationally or on a state-by-state basis do so almost uniformly by projecting a decisive advantage in Democratic turnout – but when you look for evidence outside of the polling samples themselves of that Democratic turnout advantage, you won’t find it.
There are two main arguments currently circulating for why Obama will win in spite of these factors. Both are premised upon the notion that the Obama-favoring polls are correctly projecting an electorate on the order of 2008’s D+7 (D 39/R 32/I 29) electorate, in which Obama’s turnout advantage will outweigh his loss of independent voters. I dealt on Wednesday with the first of those: Nate Silver’s polling model, which simply assumes that state-level polls are correctly projecting the turnout, on the theory that state polling averages have historically been trustworthy.
The other main argument comes from Josh Marshall. Marshall’s thesis is that independents are supporting Romney because the ranks of independent voters have been swelled by “an exodus from the GOP to the right”:
In other words, a lot of people left the Republican party, in identification terms. But they didn’t become Democrats. And it doesn’t seem (at least from the politics of the last two years) like they became more moderate of ‘centrist’ in ideological terms. They simply reidentified themselves as independents… I think in a lot of cases they actually re-identified because the GOP wasn’t right-wing enough, call it a Tea Party exodus from the GOP.
…[W]hat does not seem in doubt is that a lot of people who had called themselves Republicans started calling themselves independents, notwithstanding the fact that there’s little evidence they became less conservative.
And if that’s the case, you can see without much problem how Romney could be winning independents: because a lot of those independents are people who used to be Republicans. Or to put it another way, the pool of independents got a lot more conservative without changing the overall composition of the electorate. You just had a zero-sum transfer between Republican and independent.
This is a plausible-sounding theory, if you think independent voters are some sort of strange new phenomenon never before seen on the American electoral landscape, and Marshall backs it up with a colorful line graph showing the results of what he describes as various national party ID surveys. But it does not stand up to scrutiny.
Let’s look at a screenshot of Marshall’s chart; you can go click over to TPM if you want to play around with the various bells and whistles on it:
First of all, as Marshall himself admits, “we keep this data set of ‘adults’ rather than registered or likely voters. That makes it somewhat different from the voting electorate. …These are polls which simply ask people over 18, how do you identify in partisan terms.” As anyone who follows elections even remotely closely knows, polls of “all adults” are completely worthless, and a campaign whose supporters are citing polls of “all adults” rather than registered or likely voters six days before an election is doomed.
Second, notice something about the math here: Marshall is citing a collection of surveys that say the population is 32.5 D/25.2 R/33 I at present – which adds up to 90.7% of the people. What happened to the other 9.3%? As of the line in the middle representing the 2010 election, he shows the population as 34.2 D/30.2 R/28 I – again, 92.4% of the people, with 7.6% unaccounted for. Around Election Day 2008, it shows 39.4 D/30.6 R/25.2 I – 95.2% of the population, with 4.8% unaccounted for. It’s impossible to translate those kinds of large omissions into a useful tool for analyzing the electorate. (In fact, Marshall shows independents outnumbering Democrats – and if that happens, I promise you, Obama is toast).
Third, it doesn’t match up to the actual voter turnout. Exit polls in 2008 show 39% D and 31% R, numbers consistent with the chart, but 29% rather than 25% I. For 2010, it’s way off: Marshall’s chart has the population at 30.2% Republican and a D+4 advantage for Democrats, when in fact we know the exits showed a D 36/R 36/I 28 electorate. Somehow, the 7.6% of the people not accounted for turned out to almost all be Republicans. Marshall makes no effort to test how any of these surveys (or his rolling average of surveys) has matched up historically to the actual electorate, unlike my comparison of the track record of the Gallup and Rasmussen party ID surveys (both of which he mysteriously leaves out of his average) dating back over multiple elections. I will trust the people who have done this before and been proven reliable.
If it was true that success with independent voters was the result of defectors from the party, you would expect recent and longer-term history to show an inverse relationship between success with independents and partisan turnout – that is, you’d expect to see Republicans doing better with independents when GOP turnout is low, and Democrats doing better with independents when Democratic turnout is low. There is, in fact, some evidence that that was true before 1984, when a lot of independents and “Reagan Democrats” started self-identifying as Republicans. But since then, if you look at the presidential election years and the last two off-year Congressional elections (2006 and 2010), what you see in general is more like the opposite relationship: parties tend to do better with independents when they are turning out a lot of their own partisans. This chart shows the percentage of Democrats and Republicans in the electorate each of those years, along with each party’s share of the two-party vote among independents (that is, I dropped out the percentage of independents voting for Ross Perot, John Anderson, etc.):
As you can see, Democrats did well with independents in years like 1996, 2006 and 2008 when Democratic turnout was up, indicating that good partisan environments/candidates drew Democrats to the polls and attracted independent voters. Republicans did better with independents in 2010 when Republican turnout was up. Independents were closely divided in 2000 and 2004. This is what anybody who has spent any time working in the fields of campaigns, polling or election punditry would expect to see – strength with independent voters nearly always goes hand-in-hand with the party-base enthusiasm that drives good voter turnout. A big Democratic turnout year and small Republican turnout year at the same time as a big Republican surge with independent voters is out of whack with history.
I don’t doubt that, anecdotally, a fair number of people left the GOP after 2008 to join the long-time Perotista faction and build a core bloc of Tea Party-friendly independents. Rasmussen’s surveys suggest that a good chunk of those people came home to the GOP by the time of the 2010 election, and if they didn’t, they were replaced by other Republicans, because GOP turnout in 2010 was the best it had been since 2004. Marshall’s theory that Republicans have collapsed to something resembling 25% of the electorate is frankly inexplicable in light of the 2010 elections (and the 2012 recall election, in Wisconsin).
For an example of why this makes no sense, let’s look at one of the latest pieces of evidence outside the polling that supports a more Republican electorate: as Ed Morrissey notes, a recent study shows voter regstration across 8 states that register voters by party (FL, NC, CO, NV, NM, IA, PA & NH; states like OH & VA don’t) shows a net 1.3% increase in Republican registration since 2008 and a net 2.5% decrease in Democratic registration, while independent registration has boomed, up 14.4%. You can read that registration data to show that being an independent is still a lot more popular choice than being a Republican these days; you can’t sensibly read it to show that the growth of independent voters is the result of a decreasing base of Republican voters, and you can’t possibly read it to show that the total share of Republicans and independents is holding steady or declining relative to the Democrats.
I would be very shocked if Republicans are just 25% of the voters in this election. I bet Josh Marshall would too.
There’s a very large gulf between my conclusion, explained on Friday, that Obama is toast on Election Day and confident projections like Nate Silver’s poll-reading model still giving the president (at last check) a 77.4% chance of victory. Let me explain why, and what that says about the difference between my approach and Nate’s.
The Limits of Mathematical Models
“A page of history is worth a volume of logic”
– Oliver Wendell Holmes
Mathematical models are all the rage these days, but you need to start with the most basic of facts: a model is only as good as the underlying data, and that data comes in two varieties: (1) actual raw data about the current and recent past, and (2) historical evidence from which the future is projected from the raw data, on the assumption that the future will behave like the past. Consider the models under closest scrutiny right now: weather models such as hurricane models. These are the best kind of model, in the sense that the raw data is derived from intensive real-time observation and the historical data is derived from a huge number of observations and thus not dependent on a tiny and potentially unrepresentative sample.
Yet, as you watch any storm develop, you see its projected path change, sometimes dramatically. Why? Because the models are highly sensitive to changes in raw data, and because storms are dynamic systems: their path follows a certain logic, but does not track a wholly predictable trajectory. The constant adjustments made to weather models ought to give us a little more humility in dealing with models that suffer from greater flaws in raw data observations, smaller sample sizes in their bases of historical data, or that purport to explain even more complex or dynamic systems – models like climate modeling, financial market forecasts, economic and budgetary forecasting, or the behavior of voters. Yet somehow, liberals in particular seem so enamored of such models that they decry any skepticism of their projections as a “War on Objectivity,” in the words of Paul Krugman. Conservatives get labeled “climate deniers” or “poll deniers” (by the likes of Tom Jensen of PPP, Markos Moulitsas, Jonathan Chait and the American Prospect) or, in the case of disagreeing with budgetary forecasts that aren’t really even forecasts, “liars.” But if history teaches us anything, it’s that the more abuse that’s directed towards skeptics, the greater the need for someone to play Socrates.
Consider an argument Michael Lewis makes in his book The Big Short: nearly everybody involved in the mortgage-backed securities market (buy-side, sell-side, ratings agencies, regulators) bought into mathematical models valuing MBS as low-risk based on models whose historical data didn’t go back far enough to capture a collapse in housing prices. And it was precisely such a collapse that destroyed all the assumptions on which the models rested. But the people who saw the collapse coming weren’t people who built better models; they were people who questioned the assumptions in the existing models and figured out how dependent they were on those unquestioned assumptions. Something similar is what I believe is going on today with poll averages and the polling models on which they are based. The 2008 electorate that put Barack Obama in the White House is the 2005 housing market, the Dow 36,000 of politics. And any model that directly or indirectly assumes its continuation in 2012 is – no matter how diligently applied – combining bad raw data with a flawed reading of the historical evidence.
Different sets of polls are, more or less, describing two alternate universes in terms of what the 2012 electorate will look like, one strongly favorable to Obama, one essentially decisive in favor of Romney. The pro-Obama view requires a number of things to happen that are effectively unprecedented in electoral history, but Nate Silver argues that we should trust them because state poll averages have a better track record in other elections than national polls. The pro-Romney view, by contrast, simply assumes that things have gone wrong in a number of the polls’ samples that have gone wrong before. Sean Trende argues that the national pollsters currently in the field are more reliable, and that this (rather than the history of state and national pollsters in the abstract) should be significant:
Among national pollsters, you have a battle-tested group with a long track record performing national polls. Of the 14 pollsters producing national surveys in October, all but three were doing the same in 2004 (although AP used Ipsos as its pollster that year rather than GfK, and I believe a few others may have changed their data-collection companies). Of the 14 pollsters surveying Ohio in October, only four did so in 2004 (five if you count CNN/USAToday/Gallup and CNN/Opinion Research as the same poll).
Pollsters such as ABC/Washington Post, Gallup, Pew, Battleground, and NBC/WSJ are well-funded, well-staffed organizations. It’s not immediately obvious why the Gravises, Purple Strategies and Marists of the world should be trusted as much as them, let alone more. And since virtually none of the present state pollsters were around in 1996 or 2000 (except Rasmussen Reports, which had a terrible year in 2000 and has since overhauled its methodology), it’s even less clear why we should now defer to state poll performance based upon those years.
In my opinion, which view is correct is not one that can be resolved by mathematical models, but rather by an examination of the competing assumptions underlying the two sets of polls and an assessment of their reasonableness in light of history and current political reality.
Where Polls Come From
Polling is “scientific,” in the sense that it attempts to follow well-established mathematical concepts of random sampling, but political polls remain as much art as science, and each polling cycle presents different challenges to pollsters’ ability to accurately capture public sentiment. Quick summary: dating back roughly to George Gallup’s introduction of modern political polling in the 1936 election, a pollster seeks to extrapolate the voting behavior of many millions of people (130 million people voted in the 2008 presidential election) from a poll of several hundred or a few thousand people. In a poll that seeks only the opinion of the public at large, the pollster will seek to use a variety of sampling techniques to ensure that the population called actually matches the population as a whole in terms of age, gender, race, geography and other demographic factors. In some cases, where the raw data doesn’t provide a random sample, the pollster may re-weight the sample to reflect a fair cross-section.
Political polling is a somewhat different animal, however: not all adults are registered voters, and not all registered voters show up to vote every time there’s an election. So, a pollster has to use a variety of different methods – in particular, a “likely voter” screen designed to tease out the poll respondent’s likelihood of voting – to try to figure out whether the pollster’s results have sampled a group of people who correspond to the actual electorate for a given election. This is complicated by the fact that voter turnout isn’t uniform: in some years and some states Republican enthusiasm is higher than others, in some Democratic enthusiasm is higher than others. You can conduct the best poll in the world in terms of accurately ascertaining the views of a population that mirrors your sample – but if your sample doesn’t mirror that season’s electorate, your poll will mislead its readers in the same way that the Literary Digest’s unscientific poll did in 1936, or the RCP averages in the Senate elections in Colorado and Nevada in 2010, or the polls that failed to capture the GOP surge in 2002.
Technology, economics and other factors affect polling. The rise of caller ID in particular has dramatically reduced response rates – that is, pollsters have to call 8 or 9 people for every one who will answer their poll. That raises the level of difficulty in ensuring that the people who actually do answer the questions are a representative sample. Liberals argue that pollsters undersample people who have only cell phones (a disproportionately younger and/or poorer group) and non-English speakers; conservatives counter that Tea Partiers may be less likely to talk to pollsters and that polls in some cases can suffer a “Shy Tory Factor” where voters are less likely to admit to voting Republican. Partisans dispute the relative merits of in-person versus automated polling and the structure of polls that ask a lot of leading questions before asking for voter preferences. And the economics of the polling business itself is under stress, as news organizations have less money to spend on polls and pollsters do public political polling for a variety of business reasons, only some of which have anything to do with a desire to be accurate – some pollsters like PPP make most of their money off serving partisan clients, news organizations do it to drive news, universities do it for name recognition.
2012, even moreso than past elections, is apt to produce another round of reflection and recrimination on all of these issues, as a great many of the individual polls we have seen so far have been largely or wholly irreconcilable, especially in terms of their view of the partisan makeup of the 2012 electorate. If you assume that (1) the various players in national and state polling have essentially random tendencies towards inaccuracy in modeling the electorate in all conceivable environments and (2) each state’s poll average includes a large enough sample of different polls by different pollsters to bear out this assumption – in that case, state polling averages and the models that rest on them should be good predictors of turnout, as they have been in most (but not all) past elections. But when you consider that 2008 was a very unusual environment and that every turnout indicator we have other than the state poll averages is pointing to a different electorate, these become far more questionable assumptions.
Toplines and Internals
Nate Silver’s much-celebrated model is, like other poll averages, based simply on analyzing the toplines of public polls. This, more than any other factor, is where he and I part company.
If you read only the toplines of polls – the single number that says something like “Romney 48, Obama 47” – you would get the impression from a great many polls that this is a very tight race nationally, in which Obama has a steady lead in key swing states. In an ordinary year, the toplines of the polls eventually converge around the final result – but this year, there seems to be some stubborn splits among the poll toplines that reflect the pollsters’ struggles to come to agreement on who is going to vote.
Poll toplines are simply the sum of their internals: that is, different subgroups within the sample. The one poll-watchers track most closely is the partisan breakdowns: how each candidate is doing with Republican voters, Democratic voters and independent voters, two of whom (the Rs & Ds) have relatively predictable voting patterns. Bridging the gap from those internals to the topline is the percentage of each group included in the poll, which of course derives from the likely-voter modeling and other sampling issues described above. And therein lies the controversy.
My thesis, and that of a good many conservative skeptics of the 538 model, is that these internals are telling an entirely different story than some of the toplines: that Obama is getting clobbered with independent voters, traditionally the largest variable in any election and especially in a presidential election, where both sides will usually have sophisticated, well-funded turnout operations in the field. He’s on track to lose independents by double digits nationally, and the last three candidates to do that were Dukakis, Mondale and Carter in 1980. And he’s not balancing that with any particular crossover advantage (i.e., drawing more crossover Republican voters than Romney is drawing crossover Democratic voters). Similar trends are apparent throughout the state-by-state polls, not in every single poll but in enough of them to show a clear trend all over the battleground states.
If you averaged Obama’s standing in all the internals, you’d capture a profile of a candidate that looks an awful lot like a whole lot of people who have gone down to defeat in the past, and nearly nobody who has won. Under such circumstances, Obama can only win if the electorate features a historically decisive turnout advantage for Democrats – an advantage that none of the historically predictive turnout metrics are seeing, with the sole exception of the poll samples used by some (but not all) pollsters. Thus, Obama’s position in the toplines depends entirely on whether those pollsters are correctly sampling the partisan turnout.
That’s where the importance of knowing and understanding electoral history comes in. Because if your model is relying entirely on toplines that don’t make any sense when you look at the internals with a knowledge of the past history of what winning campaigns look like, you need to start playing Socrates.
Moneyball and PECOTA’s World
Let me use an analogy from baseball statistics, which I think is appropriate here because it’s where both I and Nate Silver first learned to read statistics critically and first got an audience on the internet: in terms of their predictive power, poll toplines are like pitcher win-loss records or batter RBI.
At a very general level, the job of a baseball batter is to make runs score, and the job of a baseball pitcher is to win games, so traditionally people looked at W-L records and RBI as evidence of who was good at their jobs. And it’s true that any group of pitchers with really good W-L record will, on average, be better than a group with bad ones; any group of batters with a lot of RBI will, on average, be better than a group with very few RBI. If you built a model around those numbers, you’d be right more often than you’d be wrong.
But wins and RBI are not skills; they are the byproducts of other skills (striking people out, hitting home runs, etc.) combined with opportunities: you can’t drive in runners who aren’t on base, and you can’t win games if your team doesn’t score runs. If you build your team around acquiring guys who get a lot of RBI and wins, you may end up making an awful lot of mistakes. Similarly, you can’t win the votes of people who don’t come to the polls.
Baseball analysis has come a long way in recent decades, because baseball is a closed system: nearly everything is recorded and quantified, so statistical analysis is less likely to founder on hidden, uncounted variables. Yet, even highly sophisticated baseball models can still make mistakes if they rest on mistaken assumptions. Baseball Prospectus.com’s PECOTA player projection system – designed by Nate Silver and his colleagues at BP – is one of the best state-of-the-art systems in the business. But one of PECOTA’s more recent, well-known failures presents an object lesson. In 2009, PECOTA projected rookie Orioles catcher Matt Wieters to hit .311/.395/.546 (batting/on base percentage/slugging). As regular consumers of PECOTA know, this is just a probabilistic projection of his most likely performance, and the actual projection provided a range of possible outcomes. But the projection clearly was wrong, and not just unsuccessful. While Wieters has developed into a good player, nothing in his major league performance since has justfied such optimism: Wieters hit .288/.340/.412 as a rookie, and .260/.328/.421 over his first four major league seasons. What went wrong? Wieters had batted .355/.454/.600 between AA and A ball in 2008, and systems like PECOTA are supposed to adjust those numbers downward for the difference in the level of competition between A ball, AA ball and the major leagues. But as Colin Wyers noted at the time, the problem was that the context adjustments used by PECOTA that season used an unusually generous translation, assuming that the two leagues Wieters had played in – the Eastern League and the Carolina League – were much more competitive in 2008 than they had been in previous years. By getting the baseline of the 2008 environment Wieters played in wrong, PECOTA got the projection wrong, a projection that was out of step with what other models were much more realistically projecting at the time. The sophistication of the PECOTA system was no match for two bad inputs in the historical data.
My point is not to beat up on PECOTA, which as I said is a fantastic system and much better than anything I could design. Let’s consider for a further example one of PECOTA’s most notable successes, one where I questioned Nate Silver at the time and was wrong; I think it also illustrates the differing approaches at work here. In 2008, PECOTA projected the Tampa Bay Rays to win 88-89 games, a projection that Nate Silver touted in a widely-read Sports Illustrated article. It was a daring projection, seeing as the Rays had lost 95 or more games three years running and never won more than 70 games in franchise history. As Silver wrote, “[i]t’s in the field…that the Rays will make their biggest gains…the Rays’ defense projects to be 10 runs above average this year, an 82-run improvement.” I wrote at the time: “this is nuts. Last season, Tampa allowed 944 runs (5.83 per game), the highest in the majors by a margin of more than 50 runs. This season, BP is projecting them to allow 713 runs (4.40 per game), the lowest in the AL, third-lowest in the majors…and a 32% reduction from last season…it’s an incredibly ambitious goal.”
PECOTA was right, and if anything was too conservative. The Rays won 97 games and went to the World Series, without any improvement by their offense, almost entirely on the strength of an improved defense. I later calculated that their one-year defensive improvement was the largest since 1878. Looking at history and common sense, I was right that PECOTA was projecting an event nearly unprecedented in the history of the game, and I would raise the same objection again. But the model was right in seeing it coming.
If you looked closely, you could see why: the frontiers of statistical analysis had shifted. Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball, following the 2002 Oakland A’s, captured the era when statistical analysts stressed hitting and de-emphasized fielding on the theory that it was easier to use sophisticated metrics to find better hitters, but harder to quantify the benefits of defense. By 2008, the metrics were creating more opportunities to study defense, and – as captured in Jonah Keri’s book The Extra 2% (about the building of that Rays team) – the Rays took advantage.
But for the Rays, the 2008 environment was not so easily repeated in subsequent years. While still a successful club with a solid defense in a pitcher’s park (and still far better defensively than in 2007) they have led the league in “Defensive Efficiency Rating” only once in the past four years. It’s what Bill James called the Law of Competitive Balance: unsuccessful teams adapt more quickly to imitate the successes of the successful teams, bringing both sides closer to parity. Trende, in his book The Lost Majority, applies the same essential lesson to political coalitions. Assuming that the 2008 turnout models, which depended heavily on unusually low Republican turnout, still apply to Obama’s current campaign ignores the extent to which multiple factors favor a balance swinging back to the Republicans. And the polls that make up the averages – averages upon which Nate Silver’s model rests – are doing just that. Nate’s model might well work in an election where the relationship between the internals and the toplines was unchanged from 2008. But because that assumption is an unreasonable one, yet almost by definition not subject to question in his model, the model is delivering a conclusion at odds with current, observable political reality.
Painted Into A Corner
Poll analysis by campaign professionals often involves a large dollop of conscious partisan hackery: spinning the polls to suggest a result the campaigns know is not realistic, in the hopes of avoiding the bottom-drops-out loss of voter confidence that sets in when a campaign is visibly doomed. For the record, unlike some of my conservative colleagues, I don’t think Nate is a conscious partisan hack. I have a lot of respect for his intelligence and his thoroughness as a baseball analyst and we have mutual friends in the world of baseball analysis, and I think he undoubtedly recognizes that it will not be good for his credibility to be committed to the last ditch to defending Obama as a prohibitive favorite in an election he ends up losing. (It’s true that the 538 model is just probabilities, but as Prof. Jacobson notes, Nate won his reputation as an electoral forecaster with similar probabilistic projections in 2008; if you project a guy to have a 77% chance to win an election he loses, that will inevitably cause people to put less faith in your odds-laying later on).
I do, however, think that – for whatever reasons – Nate has painted himself into a corner from which there is no easy escape. If I’m right about the electorate and the polls are right about the internals, Romney wins – and if Romney wins, the 538 model will require some serious rethinking. There’s a bunch of reasons why he finds himself in this position. One is that his model has been oversold: he made his poll-reading reputation based on a single election cycle, in which he had access to non-public polls to check his work. Nate is, in fact, not the first poll-reader to get 49 states right: RedState’s own Gerry Daly did the same thing in 2004, missing only Wisconsin (which Bush lost by half a point) in his Election Day forecast, and Gerry did this through careful common-sense reading of the state-by-state polls checked against the national polls, not through a model that purported to do his thinking for him. (As it happened, the RCP averages at the end of the cycle did the same thing, as they did in 2008.) I’m inclined to listen to guys like Gerry who have been doing this for years and have not only recounted the numbers from past elections but lived through the reading of polls while they were happening. In 2010, the 538 model fared well – but no better than the poll averages at RCP. And that was only after Nate was much slower to pick up on the coming GOP wave than Scott Rasmussen, who called it a lot earlier in the cycle.
There are a raft of methodological quibbles with the 538 model (some larger than others), many of which reek of confirmation bias (ie, the tendency to question bad news more closely than good). For example, while Nate’s commentaries have included lengthy broadsides against Rasmussen and Gallup, his model tends to give a lot of weight to partisan pollster PPP. Ted Frank noted one example that perfectly captures the value of knowing your history; the 538 model’s assumptions about how late-deciding undecided voters will break are tilted towards Obama by including the 2000 election, when Gore did far better on Election Day than the late-October polls suggested. But Gore wasn’t an incumbent, and there was a major event (the Bush DUI story) that had a major impact on turnout and undecided voters. If you make different assumptions based on a different reading of history, you get different conclusions. The spirit of open scientific inquiry should welcome this kind of scrutiny, even in the heat of election season.
None of this is a reason to conclude that the 538 concept is broken beyond repair. If you regard poll analysis as something like an objective calling, you can learn from your failures as well as your successes. If Obama wins, my own assumptions (and indeed, nearly everything we know about winning campaigns) will have to be re-examined. If Romney wins, the model of simply aggregating the topline state-by-state poll averages will have to be sent back to the drawing board. But there will be no hiding, in that case, from the fact of its failure.
One of the more widely-discussed efforts to fix the problem of topline poll data varying by turnout models is Dean Chambers’ UnskewedPolls.com, which takes the internals of each poll and re-weights them for a more Romney-friendly turnout model. In concept, what Chambers is doing is on the right track, because it lets us separate how much of the poll toplines is due to the sentiments of different groups and how much is due to assumptions about turnout. But his execution is a methodological hash.
I haven’t pulled apart all the pieces of Chambers’ model, but my main objection to UnskewedPolls is that it re-weights the electorate twice:
The QStarNews poll works with the premise that the partisan makeup of the electorate 34.8 percent Republicans, 35.2 percent Democrats and 30.0 percent independent voters. Additionally, our model is based on the electorate including approximately 41.0 percent conservatives, 20.0 percent moderates and 39.0 percent liberals.
Republicans are 89 percent conservative, 9 percent moderate and 2 percent liberal. Among Democrats, 3 percent are conservative, 23 percent are moderate and 74 percent are liberal. Independents include 33 percent conservatives, 49 percent moderates and 18 percent liberals.
Our polls are doubly-weighted, to doubly insure the results are most accurate and not skewed, by both party identification and self-identified ideology. For instance, no matter how many Republicans answer our survey, they are weighted at 34.8 percent. If conservatives are over-represented among Republicans in the raw sample, they are still weighted at 89 percent of Republicans regardless.
The problem with this method is that neither the raw data (the current polls) nor a lot of the historical data (past years’ exit polls) has crosstabs showing how the votes of each partisan group break out by ideology. That is, for example, we have nearly no separate polling (certainly none on the polls Chambers is “unskewing”) showing how Romney is polling among independents who self-identify as moderates, or how Obama is polling among Democrats who self-identify as conservatives. That’s aside from the question of whether ideological self-ID is nearly as predictive a variable as party ID. Re-weighting the samples twice by these two separate variables, without access to those crosstabs, means you don’t really have any idea whether you are just adding a mutiplier that double-counts your adjustments to the turnout model. It’s more alchemy than science.
We can’t know until Election Day who is right. I stand by my view that Obama is losing independent voters decisively, because the national and state polls both support that thesis. I stand by my view that Republican turnout will be up significantly from recent-historic lows in 2008 in the key swing states (Ohio, Wisconsin, Colorado) and nationally, because the post-2008 elections, the party registration data, the early-voting and absentee-ballot numbers, and the Rasmussen and Gallup national party-ID surveys (both of which have solid track records) all point to this conclusion. I stand by my view that no countervailing evidence outside of poll samples shows a similar surge above 2008 levels in Democratic voter turnout, as would be needed to offset Romney’s advantage with independents and increased GOP voter turnout. And I stand by the view that a mechanical reading of polling averages is an inadequate basis to project an event unprecedented in American history: the re-election of a sitting president without a clear-cut victory in the national popular vote.
Perhaps, despite the paucity of evidence to the contrary, these assumptions are wrong. But if they are correct, no mathematical model can provide a convincing explanation of how Obama is going to win re-election. He remains toast.
Barack Obama is toast. This is not something I say lightly. I generally try to remain cautious about predictions, because the prediction business is a humbling one. I have never been especially bullish on Mitt Romney, and I spent most of the summer and early fall arguing that this was basically a neck-and-neck race that would go down to the wire. But in the end, two things stand out:
One, Mitt Romney has a consistent, significant lead among independent voters, which increasingly looks like a double-digit lead. This is especially clear in national polls, but can also be seen in the key swing state polls. It’s been a hard enough number for the past few weeks now, even as the last of the debates gets baked into the polls, that there’s little chance that Obama can turn it around in the 11 days remaining in this race. In fact, Obama has been underwater with independents almost continuously since the middle of 2009.
Two, to overcome losing independents by more than a few points, Obama needs to have a decisive advantage in Democratic turnout, roughly on the order of – or in some places exceeding – the advantage he enjoyed in 2008, when Democrats nationally had a 7-point advantage (39-32). Yet nearly every indicator we have of turnout suggests that, relative to Republicans, the Democrats are behind where they were in 2008. Surveys by the two largest professional pollsters, Rasmussen and Gallup, actually suggest that Republicans will have a turnout advantage, which has happened only once (in the 2002 midterms) in the history of exit polling and probably hasn’t happened in a presidential election year since the 1920s.
Those two facts alone caused me to conclude at the end of last week that Obama will lose – perhaps lose a very close race, but lose just the same. That conclusion is only underscored by the fact that, historically, there is little reason to believe that the remaining undecided voters will break for an incumbent in tough economic times. He will lose the national popular vote, and the fact that he has remained competitive to the end in the two key swing states he needs to win (Ohio and Wisconsin) will not save him.
This is a must-read Sean Trende column on why Obama’s bandwagon strategy has demanded that he remain in the lead at every point in the campaign. I’ve been saying for months now that Obama’s fundraising in particular – and even moreso, his ability to deter Romney from raising money from business – was hugely dependent on convincing business interests that Obama’s regulators would still be calling the shots after the election and they should not feel safe about going all-in to be rid of him. This is also why Obama’s team has gone nuclear in its attacks on individual polls that show cracks in his armor, moreso even than usual for political campaigns and much, much moreso than usual for campaigns that are ahead in most of the polls. The same goes for Obama’s ability to draw huge turnout from young voters and other traditionally low-turnout groups.
Today’s battery of good polling news for Romney (including a boost from Gallup switching from a registered-voter to likely-voter model) is far from proof that Romney will win the election, but it is a blow to the overwhelming narrative leading into the first debate that the race had already been won by Obama, and that any skepticism of polls assuming an overwhelmingly Democratic electorate was conspiracy-level crackpottery. At last check, the liberal-run TPM polling average had Romney up by 2.8 points, a wider lead than the 2.5 point lead Unskewedpolls.com was showing. The state-by-state polling may not be entirely caught up yet, but it usually lags; John McCain was clinging to swing-state polling for weeks after he fell behind for good in the big national trackers.
Republicans have been saying for weeks that this was still a close race. Today, the polls caught up to that. Obama may yet win, but he can no longer do so just by projecting inevitability, running out the clock and letting the media bury any story that threatened to help Romney under horse race coverage. Obama and Biden have been ducking tough questions – Obama does interviews on The View and music and sports radio, while dodging the White House press corps; since joining the ticket, Paul Ryan has done 197 interviews, while Biden in the same time has done 1. You can run like that when you’re way ahead; you can’t if you actually need to get a positive message of your own out.
There are three debates left to go (including the VP debate), which will let a national audience judge the campaigns for themselves, and despite Democratic dissatisfaction with Jim Lehrer’s refusal to act as a gatekeeper running interference against Romney, it’s unlikely that the moderators of the remaining debates can protect Obama and Biden from having to win those debates on their own.
[A] Globe analysis of voter registration data in swing states reveals scant evidence that the massive undertaking [of Democratic voter registration drives] is yielding much fresh support for Obama.
In stark contrast to 2008, when a strong partisan tailwind propelled Democratic voter registration to record levels, this year Republican and independent gains are far outpacing those of Democrats.
In Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, Colorado, and Nevada – tossup states where direct election-year comparisons could be drawn – the numbers are striking. Democratic rolls increased by only 39,580, less than one-tenth the amount at the comparable point in the 2008 election.
At the same time, GOP registration has jumped by 145,085, or more than double for the same time four years ago. Independent registration has shown an even stronger surge, to 229,500, almost three times the number at this point in 2008.
…This week, Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, released a study of eight battleground states that illustrated the rise in independent voters since the 2008 election. The report, titled “The I’s Have it,” found that based on recent data, Democratic registration has declined by more than 800,000, or 5.2 percent; Republican enrollments were down about 80,000, or 0.7 percent; and independents were up 486,677, or 6.4 percent, in those states.
Read the whole thing for some of the dramatic results from Iowa and New Hampshire – sites of hotly contested GOP presidential primaries – in particular. The Democrats have an explanation for this, but it doesn’t address one of their core problems.
In a long election season, it’s never wise to get too high or too low over any one poll. Presidential elections are won at the state level, but statewide polling is fairly sporadic at this stage of the race, so we’re stuck reading national polls a lot. But the latest poll is bad news for President Obama.
We all know the major issues by now to look for with individual polls: some polls are adults, and are totally useless, because only registered voters can vote. Polls of likely voters, in turn, are vastly more accurate and less Democratic-biased than polls of registered voters, many of whom also don’t show up to vote. Most polls are also reported after weighting to achieve some guesstimate of the partisan breakdown of the general electorate among Democrats, Republicans and Independents. Even polls that don’t feature egregious hackery are an inexact science, because they rest on the pollster’s current assumptions about the D/R/I split and the ‘screen’ they use to decide who is a likely voter. If the shape of the electorate is not as projected, the poll will be wrong.
Polling averages tend to be steadier than individual polls conducted over a few hundred respondents, and they show a tight race – the RealClearPolitics average shows Obama up 46.5%-45.1%, while the left-leaning TPMPolltracker average shows Romney up 46.1-44.2. Those averages smooth out possible outliers like last Friday’s jaw-dropping Rasmussen poll showing Romney up 50-43 among likely voters. And the averages themselves get more reliable as more of the pollsters start polling likely voters – right now, Rasmussen is virtually the only pollster reporting regularly conducted polls that is polling likely rather than registered voters. Looking at RCP, Rasmussen’s mid-April poll is the last likely voter poll showing President Obama in the lead.
All that said, the Obama campaign cannot be happy with the results of the latest CBS/New York Times poll – a poll of registered voters done by two organizations notoriously unfriendly to Republicans* – showing Mitt Romney leading Barack Obama 46-43. Some breakdowns below the fold.
I’ve previously looked in detail at the breakdown of GOP primary votes here, here and here; for purposes of this series, I’ve broken out the votes in three groups – the five conservative candidates (Santorum, Gingrich, Perry, Bachmann and Cain), the two moderate candidates (Romney and Hunstman) and the libertarian (Paul) – for reasons explained in the first post. In my second post, I detailed the signs to look for to see whether and when Romney would start putting the race away with the voters rather than simply plodding through the accumulation of delegates.
After the March 24 vote in Louisiana and Tuesday’s votes in Wisconsin, Maryland and DC, we can see the signs of that momentum shift, but only slightly, with stubborn resistance to Romney still continuing. Not-unrelatedly, we can see the collapse of Newt Gingrich’s campaign to levels even lower than he was getting in February, the last time he went a month without being on the ballot in any Southern state (recall that Newt was not on the Missouri ballot). Let’s start with the month-by-month running tally:
How has the popular vote differed in the 2012 GOP primary if you break out the states by their track record in recent presidential elections? It turns out that there are some distinct patterns, patterns that provide both good and bad news for a GOP contemplating a general election behind Mitt Romney.
Let’s start with the 13 “Red” states (i.e., the states won by the GOP in the last 3 presidential elections) to vote so far: SC, MO, AZ, WY, AK, GA, ID, ND, OK, TN, KS, AL & MS. Here’s how the vote breaks down, out of 4,052,212 votes cast:
Newt 30.4% (2 wins)
Romney 30.2% (4 wins)
Santorum 29.1% (7 wins)
If we combine the votes for the 5 conservative and two moderate candidates as explained here*, we get the following:
Conservative bloc: 60.3%
Moderate bloc: 30.4%
Unsurprisingly, Romney has struggled in solidly Republican states, where the conservative vote has outpolled him 2-to-1, but the division in that vote means that he, Newt and Santorum have run almost in a 3-way heat, with Newt actually narrrowly in the lead (Santorum will probably close the gap on Saturday). The good news is, unless the Romney campaign really collapses, he’s likely to win most of these states against Obama anyway. The bad news is, there are a lot of down-ticket GOP officeholders who could suffer if Romney isn’t able to energize voters in these states.
Then we have the 8 Blue states (states won by the Democrats the past 3 elections) to vote so far: MN, ME, MI, WA, MA, VT, HI, & IL, in which 2,460,097 votes have been cast. Unsurprisingly, these states present a diametrically opposite picture:
Romney 47.3% (7 wins)
Santorum 32.4% (1 win)
Moderate bloc: 47.5%
Conservative bloc: 39.9%
Romney’s run much closer to a majority with voters in blue territory, who are accustomed to making a lot of compromises in search of electable candidates; Ron Paul has also run a lot stronger in these states, while Newt has been a complete non-factor with GOP electorates that tend to be mistrustful of the role of Southerners in the party’s leadership. That doesn’t mean there’s no market for conservatives, as the Pennsylvanian Santorum has actually done better in blue states than red ones.
Then there’s the 7 Purple or Swing states, each won by each party at least once in the last 3 elections. Excluding Virginia, which skews the sample because the conservatives were not even on the ballot, that leaves IA, NH, FL, NV, CO, & OH, in which 3,345,072 votes have been cast:
After last night’s contests, it’s time to update my running tallies of the popular vote in the GOP presidential primary and see what further conclusions can be drawn. I continue to break out the votes in three groups – the five conservative candidates (Santorum, Gingrich, Perry, Bachmann and Cain), the two moderate candidates (Romney and Hunstman) and the libertarian (Paul) – for reasons explained in my last post. Also, the numbers through Super Tuesday have changed slightly from the last post, as more complete tallies in some states have become available. This time I’m including the Wyoming results in the totals, but not the tiny vote totals from the territories (the Northern Mariana Islands and U.S. Virgin Islands; no popular vote totals are available from Guam or American Samoa).
I. Popular Vote Totals To Date
Let’s look at how the week of contests since Super Tuesday stacks up against the popular vote count up to then:
|Candidate||Votes Thru 3/6||%||Votes 3/10-3/13||%||TOTAL||%|
Let’s take a different angle and break that out by month:
The voting is over, and so for the most part is the counting. The delegate math, I leave to others; let’s take a look at how the popular vote has shaped up over the course of this primary season and what conclusions we can draw. First, the overall popular vote before Super Tuesday, on Super Tuesday, and to date.* In addition to listing the candidates’ individual vote totals, I’ve classified them in three groups: the five conservative candidates (Santorum, Gingrich, Perry, Bachmann and Cain), the two moderate candidates (Romney and Hunstman) and the libertarian (Paul). While there will undoubtedly be some grousing over the use of those labels, I think it’s uncontroversial to note that Santorum, Gingrich, Perry, Bachmann and Cain all built their campaigns around appealing first to the conservative wing of the party and reaching out from there, while Romney and Huntsman took the opposite approach (and Paul, of course, is in his own category), so this turns out to be a reasonably useful descriptor of how the electorate has broken out between the voters responding to these different appeals. If anything, this overstates the moderate voting bloc, as Romney’s “electability” argument, among other things (including religious loyalties among Mormon voters), has tended in exit polls to draw him some chunk of conservative support.
I. Popular Vote Totals To Date
There are three obvious conclusions here. One, Romney is steadily outpolling any one of his individual rivals, cementing his frontrunner status. Two, his frontrunner status derives entirely from the division among his opponents: the conservatives have consistently outpolled the moderates. And three, despite winning his home state of Massachusetts by a 60-point, 220,000 vote margin on Super Tuesday and despite none of the conservatives being on the ballot in Virginia, Romney’s not getting any stronger – even with Perry and Bachmann out of the race and Cain not drawing a single recorded vote, the conservatives drew a majority of the votes on Tuesday. Thus, as Romney pulls away in the delegate race and thus advances closer to being the nominee, he does so over the sustained objections of a near-majority faction of the party. More optimistically, the strength of the conservative vote – even in a year when that vote is fractured and underfunded and the remaining conservative candidates are decidedly subpar – bodes well for conservative candidates who can unify that vote in the future.
Let’s dig deeper below the fold:
The basic dynamics of the 2012 GOP nomination battle remain unchanged: the bulk of the GOP electorate doesn’t want Mitt Romney, but isn’t really sold on an alternative. Iowa’s voters broke late to Rick Santorum as the conservative alternative; South Carolina’s broke late, and much more decisively, to Newt Gingrich. It remains up to Newt now to prove he can hold together the conservatives going forward, as Santorum was not equipped or financed well enough to do.
It’s worth noting here the raw numbers. While the categories don’t perfectly describe the candidates or their supporters, it has been generally true that Romney and Jon Huntsman have appealed to the more moderate Republican primary voters; Gingrich, Santorum, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann to the more conservative voters; and Ron Paul to the libertarian voters. What we see in the first three states is that in South Carolina, as in Iowa, the conservative vote was a majority:
Iowa: Conservatives 53%, Moderates 26%, Libertarians 21%
New Hampshire: Moderates 56%, Libertarians 23%, Conservatives 19%
South Carolina: Conservatives 57%, Moderates 28%, Libertarians 17%
There will be other states – possibly including delegate-rich California and New York – that will more nearly resemble New Hampshire’s profile; there will be states where Newt is not on the ballot (Virginia), where Romney has a home-field advantage (Michigan, Massachusetts, Utah), or where the confluence of caucuses and a large Mormon population favors Romney (Nevada). But at the end of the day, regardless of desperate efforts to prop up Santorum, it is hard to see any of those structural/organizational factors overcoming the core question: either Newt will unite the conservative vote, or Romney will have to earn a share of it away from him. Which has always been how we needed to pick a nominee. However you describe the GOP “Establishment,” our nominee can and should only be one whom the primary voters – however reluctantly – have decided after reflection and stress-testing to nominate.
Florida won’t be the last test of this, given Romney’s money and organization advantages there, but it will be the first serious one. In Churchill’s phrase, South Carolina was not the end, or the beginning of the end; it marked the end of the beginning.
Ben Domenech on Why Newt (I’m the unnamed “email from a non-South Carolinian” quoted)
Sean Trende on why SC was so bad for Romney
–The base and South Carolina
–The narrowness of Romney’s demographic appeal
-Efforts to prop up Santorum to help Romney, here and here
There are 2,286 delegates awarded in the GOP primaries and caucuses; the nomination thus requires wrapping up 1,143 delegates. Between them, Iowa and New Hampshire award 10 delegates; South Carolina and Florida, the other two states voting later this month, award 75. By contrast, three states (California, Texas and New York) award a combined 422 delegates, more than a third of the total needed to win. So, the race is far from over after New Hampshire, and as long as there is credible opposition, it can go on for quite a while after South Carolina and Florida as well.
That said, the early states are traditionally a test of strength that helps winnow the field to the more serious contenders, especially those with the fundraising ability and appeal beyond a narrow niche to make a serious effort to win the nomination. But three of the seven candidates now in the race are pretty much guaranteed to go beyond Iowa. First, Mitt Romney: Romney would like to win Iowa, and could be embarrassed if he finishes third (lower is very unlikely), but no matter what happens, Romney’s money, his appeal to the moderate wing of the party, and his establishment support will carry him to New Hampshire, where he is heavily favored to win easily. Second, Ron Paul: Paul could do well in Iowa as a protest vote if there are a lot of independents and Democrats re-registering tomorrow on caucus day, but his hard core of support and idosyncratic appeal guarantee that he will be in the race as long as there’s a race, regardless of how he does in any contest, yet with no chance of ever winning. And third, Jon Huntsman: Huntsman has placed all his chips on New Hampshire and already plans on finishing a distant seventh in Iowa. The only effect Iowa has on Huntsman is indirect: if Romney looks weak coming out of Iowa, Huntsman can ratchet up his efforts to convince New Hampshire moderates that Romney is fatally flawed.
Where Iowa could matter a lot, however, is in sorting out the four candidates running as the field’s conservatives: Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann. (Let’s leave aside for the moment the arguments over who can claim the term “conservative”; clearly this is the role in the field all four are pursuing). They represent a caucus-within-a-caucus, and even though they are likely to be separated 1-4 by a relatively small number of votes, their order of finish could have an outsized impact on the race, eliminating anywhere from 1-3 of them from the field.
Last night’s victory for Republican Bob Turner in NY’s 9th Congressional District was not as resounding as the 22-point blowout in Nevada’s 2d District, a district that is much more likely to play a role in contested Presidential and Senate races next year. And it shouldn’t be oversold, for some of the reasons Nate Silver identifies. But Sean Trende’s analysis is nonetheless a must-read regarding the broader trends it represents.
Also on a demographic note, this Atlantic article (aside from the error of forgetting – as I noted in the comments – that Rick Perry’s 2006 race was not his most recent election) is a good roundup of why Perry is the GOP candidate who offers the best hope of capturing a competitive share of the Hispanic vote, as he has traditionally done in Texas.
UPDATE: Closing comments due to a spambot invasion, which tends to happen when the blog isn’t updated frequently enough.
The Census Bureau today released the official reapportionment figures from the 2010 Census, which will determine (1) what states gain and lose House seats and thus will be prime targets for redistricting and (2) what states correspondingly gain and lose votes in the Electoral College for 2012.
By and large, the news was good for the GOP. For the immediate impact, I’ll focus on the Electoral College, although it’s worth noting how many of the redistricting states – especially the two biggest gainers, Texas (+4) and Florida (+2), and one of the two biggest losers, Ohio (-2) – are now under heavy GOP control (and the GOP just recently took control of the NY State Senate, assuring a place at the table in the other state losing more than one seat, as NY is also -2).
One of the favorite sports of poll junkies after an election is to grade the pollsters, and that process is in full swing already, and should be. Neil Stevens, however, has an excellent post cautioning against putting too much stock in Nate Silver’s latest effort to attach Rasmussen. The biggest specific problem he identifies is that Rasmussen offers two separate types of polls – its own polls and the POR polls, which are done at the request of paying clients under their own terms, among other things using a different margin of error – and Silver’s analysis lumps the two together as if they’re the same thing.
Polling involves a certain amount of art as well as science; evaluating the accuracy of polls after the fact, however, ought to be a task that can be done through a consistent and transparent methodology, for example comparing pollsters’ accuracy at similar distances from Election Day. It doesn’t appear that Silver’s critiques are using a sufficiently objective methodology to be trustworthy guides to making sense of the pollsters.
At ground level, Republicans win elections by doing one or more of five things:
1) Get more Republicans to vote;
2) Get more people to become Republicans, and vote;
3) Get fewer Democrats to vote;
4) Get fewer people to be Democrats;
5) Get more votes from independents, i.e., people who are neither Republicans nor Democrats.
There’s been a lot of talk about the “enthusiasm gap” in turnout between Republican and Democrat voters, about how the Democrats registered a lot of voters to vote in the “historic” 2008 election who may not be likely to vote again, and about how the developments of the past two years have driven more people to register as Republicans. I won’t attempt to evaluate those arguments here. But let us focus on one simple point, #5 on the list above: Republicans won so many elections on Tuesday because they benefitted from an enormous swing in independent voters from the Democrats to the GOP.
Tomorrow, the voters in seven states and the District of Columbia go to the polls to conclude the primary election season. The most closely-watched race on the ballot will be the race between long-time at-large liberal Republican Congressman Mike Castle and Tea Party-backed conservative insurgent Christine O’Donnell for the Republican nomination for the open Senate seat previously vacated by Joe Biden. Because the election is a special election, the winner of the seat will be seated immediately (as with the Illinois Senate race) and serve until the general election in 2014.
There have been a long series of contested primaries in the GOP this year, albeit not all of which ended up getting resolved at the ballot box. Just in the Senate races we’ve had victories of one sort or another for the conservative insurgents in Florida, Pennsylvania, Utah, Alaska, Colorado, Nevada, and Kentucky, victories for the moderate establishment candidate in Indiana, Arizona, California, Washington, and (likely on Tuesday) New Hampshire, victories for conservative establishment figures in Ohio and Missouri, and less clear-cut ideological battles in Connecticut, Kansas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Wisconsin (New York’s another story entirely). In only one state (Illinois) has a liberal Republican won a race against any sort of opposition, and prominent and experienced liberal Republicans have gotten crushed in Connecticut (Rob Simmons) and California (Tom Campbell). Notably, a few of the moderates who did fend off a conservative challenger (e.g., John McCain and Carly Fiorina) did so with the help of an endorsement by Sarah Palin, the lightning rod of this primary election season.
The Castle-O’Donnell race has become perhaps the most divisive primary of this cycle within the conservative movement, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment. There are a couple of important questions at stake that are worth considering, which really go to the heart of what kind of party the GOP should be; but it’s equally important to recall that we are compelled to face those questions only because of the particular weaknesses of these two candidates and the conditions in Delaware. The result is that there are good arguments on both sides of this one. As I’ll explain, I come out on the side of backing Castle, but the case for backing O’Donnell can’t be dismissed out of hand and deserves serious reflection.
Much of the behavior of Democratic Senate candidates can be explained by one simple fact: very few of them are going to get 50% of the vote this fall. Even the candidates who have a good chance to win are going to struggle to get to 50%. Let’s take a quick look at the RealClearPolitics polling averages for the 22 Senate races that RCP lists as being in play, or where there’s no average the last listed (generally Rasmussen) poll, just focusing on the Democratic candidate – as you will see, in only 4 of those 22 races is the Democrat polling 50/50 or better, and in only 7 of the 22 is the Democrat even polling above 43%:
These are the few popular Democrats. Wyden, Blumenthal and Manchin are all popular figures (an incumbent Senator, AG and Governor, respectively). The first two are solid favorites; Manchin could face a tough race if the GOP can tie him to the Obama Administration, which is deeply unpopular in West Virginia, but for now he’s in a good place. Gillibrand has suffered soft approval ratings but for now has little known opposition.
Three incumbents in jeopardy (an incumbent polling below 50 is always considered in danger) and facing vigorous challenges, but all stand a fighting chance. Harry Reid, while he’s revived from being down below 40%, simply can’t crack 50% – neither can his son, running for governor – which is why his strategy is almost entirely built around the national media battering Sharron Angle and letting third-party candidates siphon off enough votes to let him win below 50 as he did in 1998.
Only Feingold and Bennet are incumbents here, and so a number of these races still have a lot of undecideds. (In Colorado, the Senate primary is something of a proxy war, with President Obama actively backing Bennet after failing to bribe Romanoff to drop out of the race, while former President Clinton is backing Romanoff). But again, voters don’t seem too enamored of any of them, which is why the Democrats will be running an almost entirely negative fall campaign focused on driving small numbers of voters from the GOP to third parties.
FL-Crist 37/36%, Meek 16%, Greene 17%
Not all of these races are uncompetitive – incumbent Richard Burr is listed at a weak 46% in North Carolina, Mark Kirk is even below Giannoulias in Illinois, and of course in Florida the establishment Democrats are abandoning their own candidates to line up behind the incumbent, nominally Republican governor (a man the DNC stood ready to demonize if McCain had chosen him as a running mate in 2008), Charlie Crist. But once again, the divide-and-conquer strategy is basically the only way they can play this hand.
If the Democrats manage to hold onto the Senate, it won’t be because the people of more than a tiny number of the states voting this November have actually given their performance a thumbs-up.
Good friend and RedState colleague Neil Stevens has launched Unlikely Voter, a new poll-analysis site. Go check it ouand get in on the ground floor of what is sure to be a busy site this election season. The initial explanatory post looks at the Specter/Sestak Senate primary race in Pennsylvania.
Neil is RS’ resident tech/math guy, and aims to provide some mathematical rigor to the space already inhabited by RealClearPolitics’ multi-poll averaging and Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com; while both of those sites are useful, RCP is an apples-and-oranges snapshot rather than an analysis site, and Silver’s site, while superficially impressive, is too often driven by advocacy and in some cases apparent vendettas against particular polling firms, and tends at times to overstate the degree of certainty in its models, which tend to assume that all trends will continue indefinitely (like when Silver constructed a polling model predicting approval of same-sex marriage in 2009 by the following states: Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maine, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Nevada, Washington, Alaska, New York, Oregon) or tend to predict things like legislative votes that can’t reliably be predicted with mathematical models.
We really have never had a satisfactory replacement in this space for Gerry Daly’s site, and hopefully Neil will fill that gap.
The latest Quinnipiac poll of Connecticut voters is out, and while it is (standard disclaimer) only one poll, it shows bad news for Chris Dodd, good news for his strongest challenger, Rob Simmons, and bad news for President Obama’s health care plan.
Here’s the topline result on Simmons vs Dodd:
Former Connecticut Congressman Rob Simmons has an early lead in the Republican primary race for the 2010 U.S. Senate contest and runs better than any other challenger against Sen. Christopher Dodd, topping the Democratic incumbent 49 – 38 percent…
Former World Wrestling Entertainment executive Linda McMahon gets 43 percent to Sen. Dodd’s 41 percent…
Even potential Republican contenders with almost no name recognition and almost no Republican primary voter support give Dodd a run for his money.
Simmons leads a Republican primary matchup with 28 percent, followed by McMahon with 17 percent. No other contender tops 9 percent and 36 percent are undecided.
Connecticut voters disapprove 54 – 40 percent of the job Dodd is doing, compared to a 49 – 43 percent disapproval September 17, and say 53 – 39 percent that he does not deserve reelection.
The poll shows Dodd with a favorable/unfavorable rating of -15 (38-53) among men and -25 (34-59) among Independents, and a re-elect number of -24 (34-58) among men and -32 (30-62) among Independents, the latter mirroring the showing of Jon Corzine and Creigh Deeds among Independents.
It’s still somewhat early to judge whether any of the other Republicans in the race would be electable against Dodd; clearly, Simmons, as a moderate former Congressman, has a very real shot of winning this race, as he’s polling basically where Chris Christie was polling at this stage against Corzine. And bear in mind, this was a poll of registered, not likely voters; the likely-voter screens almost always help the GOP candidate, especially since 2010 will be an off-year election in which polls are consistently showing that voters on the Right are far more motivated and energized. Here’s the poll’s sample:
From November 3 – 8, Quinnipiac University surveyed 1,236 Connecticut registered voters with a margin of error of +/- 2.8 percentage points. The survey includes 474 Democrats with a margin of error of +/- 4.5 percentage points and 332 Republicans with a margin of error of +/- 5.4 percentage points.
I don’t have offhand the overall registration breakdowns for CT. The sample here is 38.3% Democrats, 34.8% Independents and 26.9% Republicans, as compared to 2008 exit polls showing an electorate 43% Democrats, 31% Independents and 27% Republicans. So, Republicans aren’t oversampled here; whether the poll oversampled Independents at the expense of Democrats depends on whether you think 2008 turnout is representative of what the electorate will be going forward.
Anyway, time will tell as to whether the other GOP candidates can credibly challenge Simmons. McMahon is clearly well-funded, and her pro wrestling background suggests some familiarity with the kind of populist appeal that made Jesse Ventura a governor, but Ironman at Next Right, a close observer of the CT political scene, thinks she is a poor stump speaker and too close with Rahm and Ari Emanuel and Lowell Weicker to be trusted, including a $10,000 donation to the DCCC in the fall of 2006 while it was pouring money into CT to help defeat Simmons and Nancy Johnson (McMahon herself didn’t vote in that election). $3 million in state tax credits for WWE and a heavy WWE lobbying presence in the state capitol are also not the kind of resume lines that are likely to help a populist campaign against the goodies-collecting Dodd. All of which adds up to more reason why McMahon will have a long way to go to convince GOP voters that she’s a better option against Dodd than Simmons.
As for Connecticut’s other Senate seat, up again in 2012 and presently held by an incumbent from the Connecticut for Lieberman party, Jay Cost has argued that the 2006 race shows that Lieberman needs to win over Republicans and conservative-leaning independents to keep his job, and that this helps explain his opposition to Obamacare:
18% of all voters [in 2006] were self-identified Republicans who voted for Lieberman. 14% of all voters were self-identified conservatives who voted for Lieberman. Simply put, Lieberman won that 2006 race in large part because conservative Republicans voted for him, not Schlesinger.
This means that Lieberman now has to win over voters well to the right of his old electoral coalition from when he was a typical Democrat. Losing the support of the left means he must go looking for conservatives, whom he managed to find in sufficient numbers three years ago. So, suppose Lieberman antagonizes conservatives in his home state so much that they get behind a more viable candidate in 2012. That Republican wins 20% of the vote rather than 9%. If the Democratic nominee can replicate Lamont’s 39%, Lieberman would lose.
The Q poll strongly supports Cost’s thesis – Lieberman’s poll profile is essentially that of a liberal Republican at this point, and Connecticut voters are far more skeptical of the Democratic health care plan than they are of Obama in general:
By a 51 – 25 percent margin, Connecticut voters say Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s views on issues are closer to the Republican Party than to the Democratic Party. There is agreement on this among voters in all parties.
Voters approve 49 – 44 percent of the job Lieberman is doing. He gets 74 – 20 percent approval from Republicans and 52 – 40 percent approval from independent voters, but Democrats disapprove 62 – 31 percent.
Voters say 64 – 29 percent that Democrats should not strip Lieberman of his committee chairmanship if he joins Republicans in a filibuster against the Democrats’ health care reform.
Connecticut voters approve 58 – 35 percent of the job President Barack Obama is doing, but they disapprove 48 – 45 percent of the way he is handling health care.
Note also that the poll shows that voters trust a Republican over Dodd on the health care issue, 43-37. And this is a liberal northeastern state; today’s Q poll in Ohio, which shows some encouraging news for Rob Portman, has voters disapproving of Obama’s health care plan by 55-36 and Obama’s approval rating running lower than the Democratic Senate candidates.
As a final footnote, recanvassing shows that Bill Owens – who ran against the House health care bill, although he then voted for it as soon as he was sworn in – has lost a significant part of his margin of victory over Doug Hoffman (who also ran against the House bill) in NY-23. Even assuming that the net result of the recanvassing doesn’t lead to any efforts to challenge the legitimacy of Owens’ election, the dwindling margin of victory undermines efforts to make much hay of Hoffman’s loss, and offers yet another data point – from the Northeast, no less – to suggest that support for Democrats and their health care plan is faltering almost everywhere.
If Connecticut is turning into dangerous turf for liberal Democrats and their big government schemes, that should be a sign to encourage opponents of big government everywhere to get in the game.
If you go here, here, here, here, here, and here, you can pretty much cover the landscape of arguments for why the polls simply can’t be trusted this year.
I’m not in the group that says McCain is secretly winning and the polls are a gigantic false-flag psy-ops program designed to discourage GOP turnout. We know, after all, that whatever the biases of various people and institutions involved, the final polls in 2004, properly understood, were highly accurate, and the 2006 polls were mostly so as well (2002, less so). Neither am I in the group that attributes potential poll inaccuracy entirely to Obama’s race – while that may well be a factor, I think there are fair arguments that run deeper to polling methodology, and I also think Obama’s inexperience, the absence of a candidate from the incumbent administration, the massive new-voter operation by the Obama camp, the Palin wildcard (this has to be the first time ever that a VP pick drew nearly the same convention speech audience as the POTUS nominees and the VP debate outdrew the POTUS debates, and now she’s delivered the biggest ratings for SNL in 14 years) and the sudden, late external shock of the credit crisis are all reasons why public sentiment may be more volatile and harder to get a fix on than usual.
Polls are not votes. They are evidence. The likely answer from the evidence we have remains that McCain is losing and likely to lose; I’m not going to cocoon myself or anyone else from that (there’s a reason why candidates who say “the only poll that matters is the one on Election Day” usually end Election Day with a concession speech). But there is more than enough uncertainty out there that I endorse wholeheartedly the view that the last thing Republicans and other McCain supporters should do is get discouraged and throw in the towel before every stop is pulled out to win this thing. You gotta be in it to win it.
UPDATE: Geraghty notes here and here the panicked frenzy of attacks he gets from the Left whenever he suggests that some polls are showing a closer race than the conventional wisdom (or the bulk of polls, for that matter). I chalk this up partly to the Online Left’s longstanding view that the winner of any argument is the person who can demonstrate the greatest degree of anger, but it’s certainly a curious phenomenon coming from people who would seem to have every reason to be confident and no particular reason to take time from their day getting angry at a conservative pundit for showing a glimmer of optimism. Unless you do buy into the view that such people really are banking very heavily on a demoralized opposition.
SECOND UPDATE: It appears that the AP poll showing Obama up only by one has a 4-point advantage for the Democrats in the party-ID breakdown. For anybody who has followed the polls this year, that’s the single biggest question: when you factor in GOTV and whether the likely-voter screens and all have or have not accurately predicted who will vote, will the party ID numbers look like 2006, when a terrible climate for Republicans still produced just a 3-point advantage in party ID for Democrats in the exit polls? Or will it be more like a double-digit advantage in party ID, figures we have not seen since the 1970s? Note that the Geraghty posts I linked to up top show very few examples of dramatic changes in party ID year to year. Even in Jay Cost’s chart of registered voter ID, the biggest swings are about 7 or 8 points in some years, 1984 and 1994 for the GOP and 1996 for the Democrats. It may well be that 2008 really will show a historic realignment away from the position the GOP held in 2006 (which was already awful, the worst Republican year in a decade), but just bear in mind that it has to be for the bulk of this year’s polls to be accurate.